I. The Dust Bowl or Is the Texas Panhandle going to run out of water?

I recently watched Ken Burns documentary about The Dust Bowl on public television.  I became alarmed at a figure I heard at the end, that “the Ogallala is about 100 feet deep on the average…we have used over 50 feet of it now…we have about 20 years of water left under these 8 states…”  We have a local groundwater conservation district and I went into their office the other day and expressed my concerns.  The clerk had me talk to the hydrology expert there (who is also an assistant manager), Dale Hallmark, who was very informative and open, spoke with me for over ½ hour and gave me a 47 page book printed by the district.

As a short answer, he told me that they have a 50 year plan so we do not run out of water and every 5 years they review their progress.  However, there is no mention of a 50 year plan in the book he gave me “Hydrology and Groundwater Resources 2011-2012” and even though he assures us there is nothing to worry about, the agency seems to be putting local industry (agriculture) ahead of the local population.

The hydrologist/assistant manager said above the local district, there are 2 stage agencies with precedence: the Texas Water Board and Texas Council on Environmental Quality.  The Texas Water Board says:  Groundwater is a major source of water in Texas, providing about 60 percent of the 16.1 million acre-feet of water used in the state.   I thought this figure was probably higher for our local area but I could not find a local percentage figure in our district book.  The Texas Council on Environmental Quality website says: “2011 will go down in the records book as the most severe one-year drought in Texas history” (our local area is classified as “drought extreme”).

Our conservation district book does not have statistics for percent of water for agriculture from rainfall vs pumped from wells and there was no mention of percent of the water used by population versus agriculture.  Wikipedia map titled “high plains fresh groundwater usage 2000” shows our county as approximately 150 million gallons per square mile, while the conservation district says for 2006 to 2010 our county used 149,100 acre feet.

There is no disagreement that the aquifer is being depleted faster than it is being replenished.  The BBC News in 2007 says:  “The aquifer was formed over millions of years, but has since been cut off from its original natural sources. It is being depleted at a rate of 12 billion cubic meters a year – amounting to a total depletion to date of a volume equal to the annual flow of 18 Colorado Rivers. Some estimates say it will dry up in as little as 25 years.”

The conservation district book says that the number of “large-capacity wells” drilled in 2012 increased 5 times from 2006 and “cumulative wells drilled since 2006” has quadrupled.  It shows a 2011 average decline of 3 feet per year which is twice the current 10 year average decline and three times the previous 10 year average decline.   The figures from the Wikipedia map give a historical range of changes:  “High Plains Aquifer, Water level change in feet, From 1980 to 1995, Moore County change: 5 to 10 less to more than 40 less”.  These Wikipedia figures would seem to be much higher in 2010, if one considers the rapid increase in wells drilled reported by the local hydrologist’s report.

In conclusion, I was able to take the time to investigate the claim of Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl with the local water conservation office.  They assures me they have a “50 year plan” and if we divide their figure for average depth of the aquifer (340 feet) by 3 feet per year, we will not run out before then, but the local conservation district seems to focus more on minutia (“regression analysis”) and cryptic expensive color copies of different county water topography maps and data than providing a complete description of the local water issues and usable information (bar graphs or historical comparisons) portraying the usage of agriculture versus the needs of the local population.

Following are some relevant excerpts from The Dust Bowl that caused my concern:

“What lessons can we take from the Dust Bowl”

(Narrator Peter Coyote except as noted)

In the first 5 years of the 1940s

Land devoted to wheat expanded by nearly 3 million acres

The speculators and suitcase farmers returned

Parcels that had sold for $5 an acre during TDB

Now commanded prices of $50, $60, sometimes $100 an acre

Even some of the most marginal lands

were put Back into production

The same process HF warned

Is starting again in the very same place

Quote:  “I always said I was the only one who could remember

Those dreadful days, Caroline confided to a friend

Adding, People have simply assumed it couldn’t happen again”

Then in the early 1950s

When the wet cycle ended

And the 2 year drought replaced it

The Dust Storms picked up once more

But the damage to the land was mitigated by those farmers who had

continued using HF’s conservation practices

And because nearly 4 million acres had been purchased

By the government during the DB and permanently restored

As national grasslands

The soil didn’t blow as much

At least a few lessons had been learned

Anecdote by local resident

Narrator (Peter Coyote)

But now instead of looking to the skies for rain

Many farmers began looking beneath the soil

Where they believed a more reliable and irresistible

supply of water could be found

The vast OA, an underground reservoir

stretching from Nebraska to North Texas

Filled with water that had seeped down

for centuries after the last ice age.

With new technology Famers could pump the ancient water up

Irrigate their land and grow other crops

Like feed corn for cattle and pigs

Which require even more moisture than wheat

Narrator:  Charles Shaw, Cimarron County

(is he some kind of expert or a local resident?)

“The only thing that is holding that ground together is that

irrigation water that comes out of the Ogallala

The Ogallala is about 100 feet deep on the average

We have used over 50 feet of it now

We have about 20 years of water left under these 8 states or

The portions of these 8 states.

It is disappearing and it is going to be gone in 20 years

If you lose the water, you are going to lose the land

And that is it in a nutshell”

Interim (anecdotal)

Narrator:  Donald Worster, historian

“I think the dust bowl can happen again

Most emphatically it can happen again

It can become a creeping Sahara

The Sahara desert some thousand years ago was a savannah

We know that it is possible to turn from savannah to a stark desert

And there is no reason to think it can’t happen

in the middle of North America”

 

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