WRAY»Colorado farmers who defied nature’s limits and nourished a pastoral paradise by irrigating drought-prone prairie are pushing ahead in the face of worsening environmental fallout: Overpumping of groundwater has drained the High Plains Aquifer to the point that streams are drying up at the rate of 6 miles a year.
The drawdown has become so severe that highly resilient fish are disappearing, evidence of ecological collapse. A Denver Post analysis of federal data shows the aquifer shrank twice as fast over the past six years compared with the previous 60. While the drying out of America’s agricultural breadbasket ($35 billion in crops a year) ultimately may pinch people in cities, it is hitting rural areas hardest.
“Now, I never know, from one minute to the next, when I turn on a faucet or hydrant, whether there will be water or not. The aquifer is being depleted,” said Lois Scott, 75, who lives west of Cope, north of the frequently bone-dry bed of the Arikaree River.
A 40-foot well her grandfather dug by hand in 1914 gave water until recently, she said, lamenting the loss of lawns where children once frolicked and green pastures for cows. Scott has been considering a move to Brush and leaving her family’s historic homestead farm.
“This will truly become the Great American Desert,” she said.
The agricultural overpumping from thousands of wells continues despite decades of warnings from researchers that the aquifer — also known as the Ogallala, the world’s largest underground body of fresh water — is shrinking.
Even if farmers radically reduced pumping, the latest research finds, the aquifer wouldn’t refill for centuries. Farmers say they cannot handle this on their own.
But there is no agreement among the eight affected states (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and South Dakota) to try to save the aquifer. And state rules allow total depletion.
In fact, Colorado officials faced with legal challenges from Kansas over dwindling surface water in the Republican River have found that their best option to comply with a 1942 compact is to take more water out of the aquifer. The state bought wells from farmers during the past decade and has been pumping out 11,500 acre-feet of water a year, enough to satisfy a small city, delivering it through a $60 million, 12-mile pipeline northeast of Wray to artificially resuscitate the river.
The overpumping reflects a pattern seen worldwide, where people with knowledge that they’re exceeding nature’s limits nevertheless cling to destructive practices.