As the worst drought in 1,200 years deepens across the American Southwest, desperation is growing for communities, industry, and agriculture. They see their way of life threatened as aquifers dry up from overuse. They see the Colorado River, a lifeblood of so much of the Southwest’s expansion, drying up.
The megadrought is simply making the consequences of unsupportable expansion a stark, inescapable, reality.
For decades the Ogallala Aquifer has been drained faster than it can be replenished. As drought conditions worsen, the recharge slows even more.
Covering eight states from Texas to Nebraska, it is North America’s largest source of groundwater. Glacial melt took more than 6,000 years to fill the aquifer, but it has been significantly depleted in just 75 years. It could “dry up” for business, industry, and agriculture use in as little as 50 years.
Last month, the Kansas Water Authority urged the state to “scrap its de facto policy of draining the Ogallala Aquifer,” Allison Kite reports for the Kansas Reflector. “Kansas government should take steps to stop the decline of the aquifer, which supplies water to one-sixth of the world’s grain supply and save it for future generations.”
It is in the state’s best interest “to halt the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer while promoting flexible and innovative management,” the water authority says. “This is nothing less than historic,” it said of its recommendation.
The parched Southwest is exploring all options for addressing its worsening water crisis.
Multi-billion-dollar desalination plants have been proposed to turn salty ocean water into potable water shipped through hundreds of miles of pipelines for thirsty crops, livestock, and humans.
Capturing water from Alaska’s rivers with dams, canals, and pipelines to ship it south have been proposed. Investing billions in a pipeline from the Great Lakes to the Southwest has been suggested. These lakes contain one-fifth of the freshwater in the world; perhaps it should be shared, those needing the water argue.
This past September, Minnesota Public Radio published a story about a letter written in Nevada’s Palm Springs Desert Sun proposing piping water from the Mississippi River to the Colorado River basin.
While the Mississippi River Basin has seen years of abundant water flow, it is now suffering drought conditions as well. As much as 45% of the nation’s grain exports are shipped on the river, but not this year as mud flats appear and channels are too shallow for heavy barge traffic.
There have been proposals to load water from Minnesota onto railcars and ship it to the parched Southwest.
Siphoning comes in many forms
Elko New Market is a small town south of the Twin Cities. It is considering an economic development project that would bring a substantial tax base and 60-plus jobs to the community. There is just one big worry to resolve: it’s huge draw on the area’s aquifer.
California company Niagara Bottling wants to invest $125 million in constructing a 425,000-square-foot facility for production of its bottled beverages. It would draw groundwater from the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer.
If permitted, it would eventually draw 310 million gallons a year from the aquifer. The City of Elko, population 5,000, is allowed to draw 145 gallons annually. It is asking the Department of Natural Resources to increase its allotment to 365 million gallons.
The project is opposed by residents concerned about the future of their aquifer.
According to the MPR, the owners plan to sell most of their products in Minnesota and Wisconsin, with some going to North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa. But what’s to stop the company from shipping to California, Colorado, or Arizona if the return on their investment is significantly higher in those states?
There are even more significant ways to siphon off local water supplies and ship them (indirectly) not just across the country but out of it.
West of Phoenix, Ariz., is the small town of Wenden. Concerned about falling levels in their aquifer, local officials took a closer look at their wells.
“Workers with the water district…saw something remarkable last year as they slowly lowered a camera into the drought-stricken town’s well: The water was moving,” a story by CNN reported.
Water sitting in aquifers may flow but never to the degree that movement can be easily detected. Its movement wasn’t natural. It flowed to the large irrigation pumps owned by Al Dahra, a United Arab Emirates-based company growing alfalfa in the Southwest. It owns over 10,000 acres in Arizona and 3,500 acres in southern California.
The alfalfa it grows is shipped to the Middle East to feed cattle.
Protect Minnesota’s waters
Even in water-rich Minnesota, concerns are growing about our aquifers. Drought conditions and the steadily increasing number of farm irrigation systems are leading to aquifer depletion. The demands of large-scale dairy operations are drawing from aquifers, as are industries with large water needs.
In the 2022 session, Minnesota’s Legislature passed a law “prohibiting the state from issuing a permit to use more than a million gallons of water a year if it’s being sent more than 50 miles away for a public drinking water supply, or more than 100 miles away for some other purpose.”
But what if it is being used to produce products shipped out of state or the country?
“Meanwhile, the crisis is expected to worsen. Studies have predicted that by 2030, global demand for water will exceed the supply by 40 percent if current practices continue,” Kristi Marohn of MPR writes.
We need to be diligent in our efforts to protect and maintain our water resources. We’ve taken them for granted for far too long. They are not an inexhaustible reserve. Drought and over use will eventually create a local crisis. We must protect our wetlands, so they recharge aquifers. Drainage systems could feed these wetlands instead of sending it down to the Gulf of Mexico. We must be more thoughtful, both in our cities and agricultural communities, in how we use water.