Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Ogallala Is Ogaleavin'...

This is a long read for a blog post, but I think it's worth it...

A few years back I was commissioned by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and the
Playa Lakes Joint Venture to write a feature story about playa lakes. If you don't know what a playa lake is (and most people don't), please allow my melodious words to edify you...

Like everything else on the arid, windswept plains of western Oklahoma, these shallow prairie basins ebb and flow on the random tide of the weather. Ephemeral is how they are most often described, and indeed, playa lakes are the spectral phantoms of the plains. They come and they go. One year they’ll be so numerous that when seen from the air the prairie seems covered in shimmering pools of quicksilver. The next year they will be utterly gone, ghostly brown circles of parched clay the only evidence of their existence.
Biologists – a group chronically prone to dry understatement - call them a “highly dynamic environment.” But this, too, is part of what they are. Playas are contradictions, but if you listen closely there is a cadence to the dichotomies of their cycle: They’re lakes, but found only in the driest part of the state. Their locations are permanent, but the water in them isn’t. They support a vast and staggeringly diverse amount of life, but often seem dry and lifeless. Most are so shallow you can walk across them, but they sit on top – and are largely responsible for - the greatest concentration of underground water on the continent.

Playas are easy to define, but hard to understand, which may be expected of something the vast majority of us have never heard of, never seen and most importantly, never cared about.

But as we’ll see, perhaps we should. Nature never created anything that didn’t have a purpose and place, and as we learn to pay more attention to what the playas are telling us we’re slowly beginning to realize these insignificant little mudholes are a crucial part of our plains ecosystems and that all of us: landowners, hunters, birders and anyone concerned with habitat loss, have something to gain by protecting them.

OK, big deal, right? So other than being glorified toad puddles and giving wetland-challenged high plains duck hunters like myself a place to hunt, what are these "lakes" good for? Please, read on...

It is not hyperbole to state the Ogallala Aquifer is the lifeblood of the plains. In a region generally devoid of surface water and receiving less than 20 inches of precipitation a year, the Ogallala is the primary water source for thousands of farms, ranches and municipalities. Covering some 174,000 square miles in eight states from Texas through Oklahoma to South Dakota, the Ogallala contains an estimated 3 billion acre-feet of water.   
The noted historian Walter Prescott Webb didn’t have much to say about playas or the Ogallala in his seminal work “The Great Plains” but he understood perfectly the importance of water. On the plains you take water where you can find it, and with the aid of an invention Webb considered just as profound as the six-shooter and barbed wire, early settlers found it in abundance. What’s more, unlike surface water, they didn’t have to worry about it being there from year to year.
The windmill introduced us to the Ogallala Aquifer, and we’ve been mining that vast underground sea ever since. It’s taken the ensuing 100 years or so to realize two very important things about the Ogallala: First, we’re using it up a whole lot faster than it’s being replenished, and second, there’s a direct link between the playas in the fields and the water in our wells.

Of course, windmills didn’t hasten the decline of the Ogallala. Technology did. It wasn’t until the widespread use of gas and diesel-powered irrigation pumps after WWII that aquifer levels really started to drop. It was during this same timeframe that playas were being plowed under and filled in at a record pace. No one suspected the two outwardly disparate water features had any link whatsoever, but recent research has yielded a startling and sobering fact: you can’t have one without the other.

...Just how big a role do playas play? Research by the U.S. Geological Survey suggests that upwards of 90 percent of the annual recharge filtering down to the Ogallala is occurring on two to five percent of the land. Guess which five percent that is? Playas. Ironically, what spurs this abnormally high recharge rate is the dry part of their wet/dry cycle combined with their unique clay bottoms.

Clay is what differentiates a playa from a garden-variety water hole. As they dry up their clay linings crack deep into the earth, forming a subterranean aqueduct pointed directly into the aquifer. When the rains return and water rushes back into the basin, it doesn’t just seep into the earth, it pours. On a typical playa you may have 10 acre-feet of water disappear down through the cracks before it ever starts to fill up.

Even after the clay swells and seals the cracks, water continues to percolate around the edges where the clay is thin or absent. Playas are, in essence, the aquifer’s sponges, soaking up precious water that would otherwise be lost and storing it deep underground for our and our children’s future use.

The implications of these findings are profound for anyone living over the Ogallala and especially for the thousands of landowners and ag producers whose properties contain playas. Playas can’t be viewed as simply nuisances to be plowed around or filled in. The vast majority of playas are located on private land, and those landowners now find themselves not only the environmental stewards of their own water source, but the economic engine that drives the entire region. As the playas go so goes the aquifer. As the aquifer goes so go the countless communities big and small that depend on it.

And lo and behold, here in the May 19th edition of the New York Times, is an update on one of the great underreported slow-motion environmental disasters of our time...

From this story in the
New York Times
Forty-nine years ago, Ashley Yost’s grandfather sank a well deep into a half-mile square of rich Kansas farmland. He struck an artery of water so prodigious that he could pump 1,600 gallons to the surface every minute. Last year, Mr. Yost was coaxing just 300 gallons from the earth, and pumping up sand in order to do it. By harvest time, the grit had robbed him of $20,000 worth of pumps and any hope of returning to the bumper harvests of years past. “That’s prime land,” he said not long ago, gesturing from his pickup at the stubby remains of last year’s crop. “I’ve raised 294 bushels of corn an acre there before, with water and the Lord’s help.” Now, he said, “it’s over.”

The land, known as Section 35, sits atop the High Plains Aquifer, a waterlogged jumble of sand, clay and gravel that begins beneath Wyoming and South Dakota and stretches clear to the Texas Panhandle. The aquifer’s northern reaches still hold enough water in many places to last hundreds of years. But as one heads south, it is increasingly tapped out, drained by ever more intensive farming and, lately, by drought.

Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers. And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains.

Sadly, this is not news to anyone who's been paying even lukewarm attention to what's going on across the plains states. I was first introduced to the politics of the Ogallala (forget that "High Plains Aquifer" shit, it's the Ogallala) when I was a newspaper reporter covering the corporate hog farm wars of the mid 90s in Oklahoma and Kansas. The long-term prognosis was grim even back then, and it has only gotten worse as hydraulic fracking (an unbelievably water-intensive activity), ethanol mandates, insanely high commodity prices, long-term drought and even more CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations, basically huge corporate hog farms and feedlots) combine to literally suck the Ogallala dry. I shudder to think how many playas have been filled in, graded out and planted to crops over the past seven years since I wrote that story.

It's obvious to anyone not congenitally delusional that if we stay on the same path, doing things the same way, that we are well and truly fucked. Something's gotta give, and in that eternal tug-of-war between us and the rock we inhabit, we are always going to lose. Always. We most assuredly need the earth in its present incarnation to survive, but she damn sure doesn't need us for the few billion years the solar system has left before the Sun dies and goes all white dwarf on everything.  Much like that famous YouTube honey badger, Gaia  don't care, Gaia don't give a shit. Unfortunately for us, neither do we.

Geez, Louise, how fuckin' stupid can one species be?



    This may help explain the obvious.

  2. Most people here in Nevada know what a playa is. Sadly they associate "the playa" with Burning Man. Great post, dig your blog sir.

  3. In answer to your question, Chad, "Real Stupid." Too bad about the guy who won't be cutting any more bumper crops, but planting crops that were never meant to grow here and then pulling water out of the ground to make them grow doesn't make much sense. And, as with most problems, it all goes back to one thing: the almighty dollar.

  4. Thanks, Larry, appreciate it.

    Phil, true. I'm not seeing much of that vaunted farmer conservation ethic these days...

  5. Enjoyed your blog but it has happened sooner than some thought I now need two wells for my house because a city and a corporation partnered up and bought some unused water rights and began over pumping and even though I have the senior water right the state will do nothing I feel because they approved it we will soon loose our house because we will not have enough water to maintain it

    Rick Kolbeck
    Dodge city kansas