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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ode to Ogallala

Air Date: Week of

USGS map shows depletion of the Ogallalla or High Plains aquifer (United States Geological Survey)

Many environmentalists applauded when President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline plans. But Kansas writer Julene Bair wants to know why it took a major pipeline to draw attention to the crucial Ogallalla aquifer. She asks whether that attention will last, or dry up as quickly as it materialized.


GELLERMAN: As I mentioned, missing from the President's speech was his recent decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. It’s still likely TransCanada will revise the route and resubmit a plan to carry tar sand crude from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast - avoiding the sensitive sand hills of Nebraska and the vast Ogallala aquifer. But author Julene Bair says oil and water aren’t the only things that don’t mix.

BAIR: Seldom does a geologic formation make headlines. Yet that’s exactly what happened last year when the Ogallala Aquifer, the groundwater formation that underlies much of the Great Plains, got the nation’s attention. Nebraska landowners and environmentalists protested the shipment of oil from Canada’s tar sands to the Texas coast, saying that a leak in the proposed Keystone XL pipeline might damage the aquifer. They won when the State Department announced it would reconsider the pipeline’s route. Now President Obama has confirmed their win.

Why, I wonder, haven’t environmentalists been fighting all along to protect the aquifer, which is being drained and polluted by industrial agriculture? I know because I watched the Kansas farm I grew up on morph from a dry-land crop, grass, and livestock operation into one of those soybean and corn factories that cause consternation among airplane passengers. “Why are all the fields round?” my seatmates invariably ask.

The center-pivot irrigation systems that have turned the ground all the way from South Dakota to Texas into a giant mesh of green, gold, and brown circles spray Ogallala water twenty-four hours per day throughout much of the summer. Each year, Plains farmers pump six trillion gallons. That’s 1.5 trillion more than the Colorado River carries to the Southwestern United States. Unlike the Colorado River, Ogallala water is not self-renewing. Geologists call it fossil water because it took thousands of years to collect underground.

Farmers and big ag-industrial companies argue that the water is put to good use. Without it, many people would go hungry. But in just 70 years, irrigators have run out of water in many places. They will run out in most other areas well before the end of this century.

Declines would not be nearly as rapid were it not for federal policies, which encourage one of the thirstiest crops grown in the region – corn. An ethanol mandate still in place ensures that, by 2015, over one-third of the nation’s corn will become fuel. Most of the rest becomes corn syrup or is fed to cattle and turned into fatty beef. Neither of these foods is good for us, as the nation’s heart disease and diabetes epidemics testify. And what about the residual chemicals in these foods? We know from United States Geological Survey studies that ag chemicals are showing up in the water.

The federal Farm Program is helping to destroy the Ogallala aquifer and to sicken the nation by giving support payments to corn farmers. It does this regardless of how many chemicals or how much water they use. The farm bill comes up for review this year. This time around, let us insist that Washington help only sensible agriculture.

[MUSIC: Peter Kater “If Men Were At Peace” from Honorable Sky (Silver Wave Records 1994).]

GELLERMAN: Julene Bair is author of the prize-winning collection of essays “One Degree West: Reflections of a Plains Daughter,” and she’s finishing a new book: “The Unfarmed Sky,” about the Ogallala, her family, and their Kansas land.

Just ahead: farmers in Mozambique learn how to survive extreme weather.
Keep listening to Living on Earth!



USGS Doc on the Declining Ogallalla

Julene Bair’s Op-Ed in NYT

Texas Tribune on the Ogallalla

An Artist's Rendering of the Ogallalla


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