Friday, March 18, 2011

Return Of The Dust Bowl?

Seems that we have to get our news out of the UK now....
For years the Ogallala Aquifer, the world’s largest underground body of fresh water, has irrigated thousands of square miles of American farmland. Now it is running dry.
Happy, Texas (yes - that's the name of the town) has a problem... the problem is that it has run out of water for its farms. This may just be a foreboding for many more towns to come. Their population has dwindled 10% per year. Happy is the harbinger of a potential Dust Bowl unseen in America since the Great Depression. What was once a booming town is now virtually empty, according to this report.
'In the 1950s a lot of wells were drilled, and the water went down. Now you can't farm the land.'

Those wells were drilled into a geological phenomenon called the Ogallala Aquifer. It is an underground lake of pristine water formed between two and six million years ago, in the Pliocene age, when the tectonic shifts that pushed the Rocky Mountains skywards were still active. The water was trapped below the new surface crust that would become the semi-arid soil of the Plains, dry and dusty. It stretches all the way down the eastern slope of the Rockies from the badlands of South Dakota to the Texas Panhandle. It does not replenish.

Happy is the canary in the coalmine because the Ogallala is deepest in the north, as much as 300ft in the more fertile country of Nebraska and Kansas. In the south, through the panhandle and over the border to New Mexico, it is 50-100ft. And around Happy, 75 miles south of Amarillo, it is now 0-50ft. The farms have been handed over to the government's Conservation Reserve Programme (CRP) to lie fallow in exchange for grants: farmers' welfare, although they hate to think of it like that.

The first ranchers, and the Plains Indians before them, knew of water below the ground from the watering holes that sustained buffalo and then cattle far from any river. The white man learnt to drill, leaving primitive windmills on top of wooden derricks silhouetted against Wild West horizons.

But it was only in the 1940s, after the Dust Bowl (the result of a severe drought and excessive farming in the early 1930s), that the US Geological Survey worked out that the watering holes were clues to the Ogallala, now believed to be the world's largest body of fresh water. They were about to repeat the dreams of man from the days of Ancient Egypt and Judea to turn the desert green, only without the Nile or Jordan. With new technology the wells could reach the deepest water, and from the early 1950s the boom was on. Some of the descendants of Dust Bowl survivors became millionaire landowners.

'Since then,' says David Brauer of the US Agriculture Department agency, the Ogallala Research Service, 'we have drained enough water to half-fill Lake Erie of the Great Lakes.' Billions upon billions of gallons – or, as they prefer to measure it, acre-feet of water, each one equivalent to a football field flooded a foot deep – have been pumped. 'The problem,' he goes on, 'is that in a brief half-century we have drawn the Ogallala level down from an average of 240ft to about 80.'
So now it is thought that the impact on the world's food supply will be far greater than that of the Great Dustbowl era, if indeed the Ogallala water supply runs out. The irrigated Plains grow about 20 per cent of American grain and corn (maize), and America's 'industrial' agriculture dominates international markets. A collapse of those markets would lead to starvation in places that depend on American grain imports.

Experts believe that even with careful farming that the dust could start blowing in as little as 10 years time.
Apart from the Ogallala, the main source remains the Colorado River, flowing west from the Rockies, its annual bounty of snow melt providing the drinking water for Las Vegas, irrigation for California's Central Valley, and the swimming-pools of Los Angeles. No one is surprised that the mighty Colorado now runs dry before it reaches the Pacific.
In the meantime, people like T. Boone Pickens are buying up water rights in certain regions because he knows water will be scarce in others. There's a few skirmishes already going on regarding water rights and who can and cannot purchase them. This will intensify.

Farmers are changing the way they farm - and opting for methods and crops that use less water.

All in all, they can make due with what water they have from the rain and the Ogallala - but the reality is that the Ogallala acquifier has been slowly drained over the years and a very high price will be paid when it can no longer support the farming and life in that region.