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The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the world’s largest aquifers, which are layers of underground rock containing water that may be tapped for human use. Located under portions of eight U.S. states, it is centered under the Great Plains region, notably the high plains of Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and covers around 174,000 square miles. Use of the aquifer began in earnest at the beginning of the 20th century; subsequently, depletion of the water resource has become considerable as the usage of aquifer water now exceeds the ability of natural sources of rainwater to replenish it. This leads to three significant negative outcomes: First, the water resource will in due course be exhausted; second, the ground above the aquifer will begin to sink, which causes many problems, especially in urban areas; and third, it is possible for seawater to seep into the spaces vacated by freshwater, exposing the aquifer to salination that would make the resource unusable for human purposes. Depletion of the water resource has unleashed various legal battles aimed at determining rights to exploit and own water resources that reside on or under publicly owned ground.
The Ogallala Aquifer, which was named by Nelson Horatio Darton in 1899, was formed in ancient times (possibly the Miocene period). It was a byproduct of the creation of the Rocky Mountains, which resulted in part in a band of porous, sedimentary rock being created to the eastern and southeastern sides and below the newly forming ridges. The band measures up to 558 feet (170 meters) at its deepest and still contains some water dating back to the last ice age, since the recharging water tends to occupy the space vacated by water already pumped from the aquifer. The shape and depth of the aquifer varies considerably across its extent as a result of different pressures exerted during its creation.
It is believed that the extent of depletion of aquifer water in the United States greatly exceeds its repletion rate, as is common throughout most of the developed and industrializing world, although it is difficult to calculate exactly the rate of this occurrence. Reasons for the increased depletion rate include the intensification of agriculture across the region and the greater use of water for both domestic and industrial use. In states such as Texas, residential development increases demand for water for sprinklers and other gardening purposes as residents set out to change the character and appearance of the land.
The U.S. government has been concerned about depletion of the aquifer since the 1970s and has legislated various measures to reduce the impact of too-rapid depletion. These measures include the return of agriculture to previously employed dry land methods, which is planned to be completed by 2020. Since current agricultural activities have proven to be unsustainable, they will in the future either have to be supported by water diverted from elsewhere (which is believed to be impractical in currently foreseeable conditions) or else be scaled back or ended completely. This will inevitably have an impact on the local economies that are currently supported by these activities. It may also lead to economic and social problems among existing communities, probably sparking migration to cities or other regions where water resources are more abundant. Falling land prices resulting from the declining attractiveness of agriculture will require the courts to try to identify who, if anyone, is responsible for this loss of value and whether compensation would be required.
- Brooks and J. Emel, The Llano Estacado of the US Southern High Plains (United Nations University Press, 2001);
- Kent W. Olson, “Economics of Transferring Water to the High Plains,” Quarterly Journal of Business and Economics (v.22/4, 1983);
- Bonnie L. Terrell, Philip Johnson, and Eduardo Segarra, “Ogallala Aquifer Depletion: Economic Impact on the Texas High Pains,” Water Policy (v.4/1, 2002);
- Allen Torell, James D. Libbin, and Michael D. Miller, “The Market Value of Water in the Ogallala Aquifer,” Land Economics (v.66/2, 1990).