Saving the Great Plains water supply

December 13, 2013, Michigan State University
Saving the Great Plains water supply
Significant portions of the Ogalalla Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate. Credit: MSU

Significant portions of the Ogalalla Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate.

In the current issue of Earth's Future, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, Michigan State University scientists are proposing alternatives that will halt and hopefully reverse the unsustainable use of water drawdown in the aquifer. The body of water, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, spans from Texas to South Dakota and drives much of the region's economy.

"Already, there are regions in Texas and Kansas where farmers can't pump enough water to meet the demands of their crops," said Bruno Basso, co-author and MSU ecosystem scientist. "If current withdrawal rates continue, such depletion will expand across extensive portions of the central and southern areas served by the aquifer during the next few decades."

Despite the widespread, rapid decline of the water table, the number of irrigated acres across the region continues to increase. The situation isn't completely dire, though, as the National Science Foundation-funded research revealed. Basso, David Hyndman and Anthony Kendall, MSU colleagues and co-authors, offered some policy solutions to avert some aspects of this water crisis.

Federal crop insurance could be changed to allow substantial water reductions, especially crops categorized as fully irrigated. An example of such a sustainable model was recently proposed by the governor of Kansas. It could save significant amounts of water, and it could be adopted regionally.

Another sustainable approach would be to adopt wholesale precision agriculture strategies. These would allow farmers to identify which areas in fields need more water and fertilizer. New precision agriculture strategies combine GPS technologies with site-specific management to apply optimal amounts of water and nutrients, which will increase farmer's profitability and reduce environmental impact.

"When you have a cut in your hand and need disinfectant, you don't dive into a pool of medicine, you apply it only where you need it and in the quantity that is strictly necessary; we can do the same in agricultural now," said Basso, part of MSU's Global Water Initiative.

Lastly, policies should address the issue in terms of crop yield ­– more crop per drop of water. Selecting crops with higher density can increase yield and decrease groundwater evaporation. Upgrades in irrigation systems can reduce water loss from 30 percent to almost zero. And careful water management can stop excess water from flooding fields and leaching valuable nutrients from the soil.

Simply put, the current water management strategies of the High Plains Aquifer are unsustainable. For the region to maintain this source, there has to be a complete paradigm shift, Basso added.

"We emphasize the critical role of science as a foundation for policies that can help mitigate the disaster that is occurring across this region," Basso said. "Policies solidly grounded in science are critical to ensure long-term sustainability and environmental integrity for future generations."

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1 / 5 (7) Dec 13, 2013
To Hell with the water. Use it to grow corn so we can power our ICE's and feel good about ourselves because we're "doing right for the environment".

If future generations want to drink, they can learn to drink crude oil - screw `em!
1.4 / 5 (5) Dec 13, 2013
It is immoral to use arable land to grow food for fuel.

As far as the aquifer goes, 100 1000 megawatt fission plants, and a goodly number of desal plants to go along with them, will go a long way towards repairing the nation's aquifers.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 13, 2013
Yeah yeah -you're both more likely to be correct than you know, but for --as usual-- all the wrong reasons.

This draw-down-to-depletion scenario will continue to increase until the well runs dry for one very simple reason: the corporate agriculture that is responsible for the vast majority of crop irrigation will never invest in any type of "precision agriculture" (an outright joke of a misnomer in and of itself) as that would ADD COST and therefore reduce profitability.

For all the obvious reasons, nothing short of full-on regulation, extreme financial dis-incentives, and unstinting enforcement would even begin to put a dent in the waste inherent in current (corporate) agriculture practice.

Now go burn your GMO corn in those 100000 fission plants, idiots.

1.6 / 5 (7) Dec 13, 2013
More government - that's the solution! Witness obamacare - as governmental fiascos go, you're just now seeing the tip of the iceberg. Keep feeding your kids corn syrup and soy - obamacare will fix it later.

As usual, those who don't know how to create wealth will destroy it.
5 / 5 (2) Dec 14, 2013
Yeah yeah yeah just blame Obama when it's the repuglicans that need fixing. Seriously, when did a repuglican do anything that helped the labor improve it's wealth. When the wealth of the working man improves, the economy of the world improves. (From "The World According to Howhot: economic ventures") Folks like scooterG are content with the repuglican points of view, arrest him for being president while black and never putting the finger of blame on those who are guilty the eco-crimes against us, we the people.

As usual, corporate farms greed abuse and those who don't know science, cause and effect, and global environmental changes from AGW that are effecting the Ogalalla Aquifer, they are the ones guilty of ignorance or over-consumption. A responsible government would regulate the Aquifer's use. Oh wait, that is what you repuglicans don't want; more regulation.

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