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Ogallala Aquifer: Approaching Catastrophe?

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I drive across I-70 periodically between St. Louis and Denver. Something unnerving is happening to the farmland that I pass in Kansas. Sinkholes are opening, only yards from the highway.

The massive Ogallala Aquifer, an ancient underground fresh water lake that made the Plains cornucopia possible after the 1930s Dust Bowl, is located below 8 states in the High Plains, including Kansas. It stretches, at depths ranging from a few feet to 1000 feet, from Texas to South Dakota, and covers roughly 175,000 square miles. Widely exploited only since the 1940s, it has been depleted at an alarming rate since, almost entirely for farming. The problem is causing increasing concern in a number of states including Oklahoma and Texas.

The water in the Ogallala dates back 2 to 6 million years and, like oil, is an ancient and non-renewable resource. As millions of gallons are used annually, the water level declines about 2.7 feet a year. It is replenished at an estimated rate of 1/2 inch per year and has an expected life of only 25 more years.

The implications of the depletion of the Ogallala for mid-western farmland and the U.S. food supply are dire.

Sinkholes are nothing new. They have occurred for centuries around the world when soft rock dissolves underground or drainage systems go awry. Florida is known for them.


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