Some mistakes are hard to see coming. Others are big enough to view from miles above.
I lived in Montana during college and for the first few years after I graduated, from 1974 to 1981. Since I’d left my family back in New York, I flew to the East Coast fairly regularly in those years. On those flights, I only had to look out the window to know exactly where I was.
Most flights took a northern route, passing over the plains of Montana and North Dakota, heading to Minneapolis and the Eastern states beyond. Below me, I could see evidence of farmers who practiced dryland agriculture. They planted wheat in contoured curves on hilly land, or in strips that created alternating stripes of golden crop and brown fallow soil. “Strip farming” conserved water, allowing moisture to accumulate in the fallow soil for use the following year. Both the contour and strip methods also prevented topsoil from blowing away. These practices came into wide use following the disastrous Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.
The northern Plains were not suited for corn; they were too dry and, more importantly, the growing season there was too short. Farmers there were never tempted to turn to irrigation on a mass scale. Even if they had wanted to, the aquifers were too deep or too scanty in many places to support large-scale crop watering.
Other flights took me east via Denver. This route passed over the central Plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas, and sometimes as far south as the Texas Panhandle. Below me, I could see a Swiss cheese pattern of green circles set against the backdrop of dry, brown prairie grasses. Each green circle was a field irrigated by a center-pivot irrigation system. Farmers raised wheat, sorghum, corn and, in some places, even water-hungry rice, all with water from the region’s vast and easily tapped aquifer.
Even 30 years ago, we knew it couldn’t last. But nobody stopped until the water ran out.
The New York Times ran an article this past weekend that focused on the rapid depletion of the High Plains Aquifer, which stretches from Wyoming and South Dakota down to the Texas Panhandle. The southern portions of the aquifer, especially, are losing the ability to support large-scale irrigation, as years of intensive farming and recent drought take their toll. Farmers in Kansas and other nearby states face the reality that their water may soon run out.
The Times described it as a “slow-motion crisis,” with some farmers already coping with a harsh new reality and others still years or decades away from running out of groundwater. But replenishing an aquifer is a matter of centuries, not seasons. Farmers in the region will have to learn to cope with less water for irrigation, or no irrigation at all. It is now only a matter of when.
The same center-pivot irrigators that allowed farmers to grow more and thirstier crops have done the bulk of the work in hastening that day.
I now fly regularly to California over the same central Plains. But the green circles, once so prominent, have largely vanished. In some places, I can still make out their shape, but they are just ghosts of past bumper crops, brown on brown.
It’s too bad the water from the High Plains Aquifer and others like it looked to be abundant when it actually was not, at least not in a long-term perspective. Had the water been priced efficiently from the beginning, farmers would have used less of it. Improvements in irrigators would have led to decreased water consumption, rather than increased crop output. Plains farmers would have turned to more efficient irrigation methods and to crops that required less water. Farmers in more humid areas, such as the Southeast and eastern Midwest, would have stepped up their planting, without the price competition of commodities from western states that had been indirectly subsidized by unrealistically cheap water.
We aren’t going to run out of the corn, cotton, or other agricultural commodities we need. The depletion of the Plains water supplies is ultimately a local issue, not a national one. Communities in that part of the country will find their future growth and prosperity constrained due to the lack of water - water consumed, often wastefully, years earlier. The water cost farmers and their communities too little for decades, but now that bill is finally coming due.
Even if the issue is local, it serves as a warning about the use of natural resources. We knew better than to use water in semiarid regions as if it were inexhaustible. Yet in the absence of clear market signals, we did not care enough, and we did not respond in time. Now the story of our wasteful past is written on the land in the ghost circles we can see from the sky.