Lawrence, KS - Events Local News Groups Contact
The Real Reason Kansas Is Running Out of Water
By Tom Philpott / motherjones.com

How to make an arid region bloom: irrigated farm plots (between 0.5 and 1 mile in diameter) over the High Plains Aquifer in western Kansas. 

Like dot-com moguls in the '90s and real estate gurus in the 2000s, farmers in western Kansas are enjoying the fruits of a bubble: Their crop yields have been boosted by a gusher of soon-to-vanish irrigation water. That's the message of a new study by Kansas State University researchers. Drawing down their region's groundwater at more than six times the natural rate of recharge, farmers there have managed to become so productive that the area boasts "the highest total market value of agriculture products" of any congressional district in the nation, the authors note. Those products are mainly beef fattened on large feedlots; and the corn used to fatten those beef cows.

But they're on the verge of essentially sucking dry a large swath of the High Plains Aquifer, one of the United States' greatest water resources. The researchers found that 30 percent of the region's groundwater has been tapped out, and if present trends continue, another 39 percent will be gone within 50 years. As the water stock dwindles, of course, pumping what's left gets more and more expensive—and farming becomes less profitable and ultimately uneconomical. But all isn't necessarily lost. The authors calculate that if the region's farmers can act collectively and cut their water use 20 percent now, their farms would produce less and generate lower profits in the short term, but could sustain corn and beef farming in the area into the next century.

And that would be great.

But I think it's also worth asking what, exactly, they'd be sustaining. The following chart, pulled from the study, shows the amount of corn grown in the region since 1980—both irrigated and un-irrigated (i.e., grown without added irrigation water), as well as the amount of corn that has been consumed by cattle in the region's feedlots. The latter metric, denoted by the red dots below, is a pretty good proxy for just how teeming those feedlots have gotten over the decades.

From: "Tapping unsustainable groundwater stores for agricultural production in the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas, projections to 2110," by David Steward, et al.

So the area has dramatically ramped up both beef and corn production since 1980—and the great bulk of that corn comes from irrigated land. And while beef production in the region has at least leveled off, the region's farmers just keep churning out more corn—including irrigated corn. New York Times reporter Michael Wines summed up the situation in an article last May:

This is in many ways a slow-motion crisis — decades in the making, imminent for some, years or decades away for others, hitting one farm but leaving an adjacent one untouched. But across the rolling plains and tarmac-flat farmland near the Kansas-Colorado border, the effects of depletion are evident everywhere. Highway bridges span arid stream beds. Most of the creeks and rivers that once veined the land have dried up as 60 years of pumping have pulled groundwater levels down by scores and even hundreds of feet.

One major culprit has been a shift in what farms grow—from a rotation featuring corn, wheat, and sorghum to a narrow focus on a single crop that flourishes under heavy irrigation and has been in high demand lately: corn.

 A shift to growing corn, a much thirstier crop than most, has only worsened matters. Driven by demand, speculation and a government mandate to produce biofuels, the price of corn has tripled since 2002, and Kansas farmers have responded by increasing the acreage of irrigated cornfields by nearly a fifth. At an average 14 inches per acre in a growing season, a corn crop soaks up groundwater like a sponge—in 2010, the State Agriculture Department said, enough to fill a space a mile square and nearly 2,100 feet high.

Indeed, US industrial-scale beef production is largely concentrated over the High Plains Aquifer, which stretches from Nebraska clear down to Texas. Here's a map of it:

Map: USGS

 

And here's a map of US feedlot beef production, courtesy of Food and Water Watch. The dark red shows what Food and Water Watch considers an "extreme" concentration of beef production.

Food and Water Watch

 

And here's a detail of Kansas—note all the red coloring the state's western half:

FWW

 

All of which makes me think that the real salvation of the High Plains Aquifer lies in moving away from the practice of growing great monocrops of corn and feeding the proceeds to penned-up cattle.

 

0.0 ·
0
What's Next
Trending Today
Dakota Access Pipeline Permit Denied
Nika Knight · 13,151 views today · 'For the first time in Native American history, they heard our voices.'
All the News Is Fake!
3 min · 10,923 views today · Jonathan Pie finds nothing new in the idea of fake news.
How Romanticism Ruined Love
5 min · 9,315 views today · The set of ideas we can call Romanticism is responsible for making our relationships extremely difficult. We shouldn’t give up on love; we should just recognize that it’s more...
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 6,731 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
After Historic Protests, Army Corps of Engineers Blocks Current Route of the Dakota Access Pipeline
3 min · 3,376 views today · The $4 billion dollar project could still be approved by President-elect Donald Trump who is heavily invested in the pipeline. Help support The Real News by making a donation...
The Numbers That Tell the Story of the Standing Rock Sioux's Victory
Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn · 2,958 views today · The Army Corps announced Sunday that the Dakota Access pipeline will be rerouted. Here are the numbers that show what lies ahead.
Bikini Was Just the Beginning, Bombs Still Threaten the Islanders
John Pilger · 2,584 views today · I was recently in the Marshall Islands, which lie in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia and south of Hawaii. Whenever I tell people where I have been, they...
Post-Brexit Visions of The Possible: It's Time to Imagine a New European Community
Martin Winiecki · 2,554 views today · We live in the beginning phase of a global revolution which will turn societal conditions upside down. We cannot stop this transformation, but we can influence where it will...
This is an Anthem for Our Times
6 min · 2,464 views today · I think the world deserves to see the truth about #NoDAPL I tried my best to portray what I felt at camp, I felt LOVE. Love for all people, all living things, Mother Earth...
Lifting the Veil:  Obama and the Failure of Capitalist Democracy (2011)
114 min · 2,040 views today · This film explores the historical role of the Democratic Party as the "graveyard of social movements", the massive influence of corporate finance in elections, the absurd...
93 Documentaries to Expand Your Consciousness
Films For Action · 2,024 views today · There are over 800 documentaries now cataloged in our library of social change films. That's probably way too many for any mortal to ever watch in a lifetime, let alone a few...
United Natures: a United Nations of all Species (2013)
103 min · 1,931 views today · United Natures explores the Rights of Mother Earth, Environmental Philosophy, Wisdom, Spirituality and the potential for a Neo-indigenous future for humanity. Directed and...
The Venus Project by Jacque Fresco
4 min · 1,675 views today · For more information visit the official web site: thevenusproject.com Facebook: facebook.com/TheVenusProjectGlobal Music: Salomon Ligthelm - Close Horizonz Hanz Zimmer ...
10 Practical Tools for Building a Resilient Local Economy
Environmental Change Makers · 1,586 views today · The economy is changing. Dramatically. Coping with these changes means changing the way we do things. The path of the future involves root level, radical changes. Things we...
Austrialian Government Promotes Crap with Adani Carmichael Coal Mine
2 min · 1,486 views today · The Australian Government just released this advert about the proposed Carmichael Coal Mine and it's surprisingly honest and informative. 6 WAYS YOU CAN HELP STOP CCRAP: 1...
Sky Roosevelt-Morris: The Secret of Indigenous Resiliency
2 min · 1,468 views today · Activist Sky Roosevelt-Morris is of the Shawnee and White Mountain Apache Nations. She is a member of the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado. In...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,159 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 942 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Breaking Down Bail: Debunking Common Bail Myths
3 min · 745 views today · Did you know over 1/2 a million Americans are being held in jail with no conviction? Not enough people know this – or that it’s all because of our money bail system. That’s why...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 742 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
The Real Reason Kansas Is Running Out of Water