By BJ Bjornson
I hadn�t heard of Charles Pierce until a couple of days ago when he was referenced a couple of times over at Balloon Juice, but I am glad that I�ve started reading him. There is an excellent, if somewhat long read on his blog now regarding an issue that I�ve seen mentioned every now and again, and which will become far more important in the very near future, the Ogallala Aquifer.
Under the high plains of the midwest, there is a resource called the Ogallala Aquifer, which is a subsystem of a huge underground mega-system called the High Plains Aquifer. It is made of permeable layers of sand, sandstone, and gravel within which are contained billions and billions of gallons of water. The nature of the aquifer geology makes the water easy to pump. The system covers 174,000 square miles beneath eight different states, ranging north-south from North Dakota to Texas, and from Nebraska in the east all the way west to parts of New Mexico. Nebraska depends most vitally on the water found in the aquifer. And there are two concerns about the aquifer that ought to be serious concerns in our politics, but that aren't. One of them isn't being treated as a concern at all. The other is not being treated seriously, but instead as a slogan and one more litmus test by the Republican presidential candidates, and as some sort of nuisance complaint by a Democratic administration that appears to be falling down on the job.
The first problem is that portions of the aquifer are running dry. The second is that Trans-Canada, the Canadian oil giant, wants to run a pipeline through a portion of the aquifer in Nebraska. How you feel about that depends entirely on how much you trust oil companies these days, because your State Department appears to be taking a dive on the question, and your Environmental Protection Agency is dodging it entirely.
Make no mistake. You screw with the Ogallala Aquifer and you screw with this nation's heartbeat. Twenty percent of the irrigated farmland in the United States depends upon it. Pumping the water from it is all that has kept the Dust Bowl from coming back, year after year. Any damage to it fundamentally changes the lives of the people who depend on it, their personal economies, the overall national economy, and what we can grow to feed ourselves. Absent the aquifer, and the nation's breadbasket goes back to being a prairie, vast grasslands that the people who first crossed them referred to as a desert. You end up with dry-land corn and some dry-land wheat. And the aquifer is far easier to empty than it is to fill. The technology to fully exploit it has existed only since the 1950's, and portions of it are already dangerously low. It won't be fully recharged until the next Ice Age.
The whole thing is worth reading, and it is worth remembering that this is a subset of a much larger problem that�s becoming more common everywhere. Water is only renewable to the extent that you don�t take more out a system than can be replenished by it, and in far too many cases, we�ve been doing just that, not just for drinking and bathing, but to cool our power plants and water our lawns (okay, no lawns where I live, but you know, in general). Even worse is how it gets used for things like fracking and processing bitumen from the tar sands, which doesn�t just suck up the water resources available, but contaminates it so it can�t be recycled for other uses later.
This is already the source of actual armed conflict in many places, and it is an issue that will only spread as climate change shifts rainfall patterns.