On the high plains of the Texas Panhandle, farmers owe their livelihoods to a marvel of geology: the cool, gravely waters of the country’s largest aquifer, the Ogallala. Stretching across eight states, the amount of water is so vast that, according to one writer, it could fill Lake Erie nine times over. Within Texas, the Ogallala accounts for about 40 percent of all water use. (Remember – it takes 1851 gallons of water to produce one barrel of oil)
But the aquifer’s levels are declining sharply here. In a dry growing season last year, the High Plains Water District, which includes all or part of 15 Panhandle counties, recorded an average drop of 1.5 feet, the most since 1997. The rains have returned, but the 2007 state water plan projects that the Ogallala’s volume will fall a staggering 52 percent between 2010 and 2060, as corn and cotton growers continue to draw from its depths. The consequences for farmers could be severe: The use of big pivot irrigation — the lifeblood of the Panhandle — could be cut back severely in 10 to 20 years if current usage patterns continue, researchers at Texas Tech University estimate.
“The aquifer is reaching a point where it is not going to produce the water that some farmers are going to want to see produced,” said Robert Mace, the deputy executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, the state’s water development planning group. Like other experts, he notes that the aquifer’s thickness varies tremendously from place to place — and in a few spots, like parts of Dawson County, the levels are actually increasing. In general, he says, Texans are probably pumping the Ogallala at about six times the rate of recharge.
Rapid depletion of the aquifer has been going on since the 1950s, as new pumping technologies became available and memories of the Dust Bowl lingered.