Ru­ral ar­eas at risk as lev­els drop in aquifer


DEN­VER — The drain­ing of a mas­sive aquifer that un­der­lies por­tions of eight states in the cen­tral U.S. is dry­ing up streams, caus­ing fish to dis­ap­pear and threat­en­ing the liveli­hood of farm­ers who rely on it for their crops.

Wa­ter lev­els in the Ogal­lala aquifer have been drop­ping for decades as ir­ri­ga­tors pump wa­ter faster than rain­fall can recharge it.

An analysis of fed­eral data found the Ogal­lala aquifer shrank twice as fast over the past six years com­pared with the pre­vi­ous 60, The Den­ver Post re­ports.

The draw­down has be­come so se­vere that streams are dry­ing at a rate of 6 miles per year and some highly re­silient fish are dis­ap­pear­ing. In ru­ral ar­eas, farm­ers and ranch­ers worry they will no longer have enough wa­ter for their live­stock and crops as the aquifer is de­pleted.

The aquifer lost 10.7 mil­lion acre-feet of stor­age be­tween 2013 and 2015, the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey said in a June re­port.

“Now I never know, from one minute to the next, when I turn on a faucet or hy­drant, whether there will be wa­ter or not,” said Lois Scott, 75, who lives west of Cope, Colorado, north of the fre­quently bonedry bed of the Arika­ree River.

A 40-foot well her grand­fa­ther dug by hand in 1914 gave wa­ter un­til re­cently, she said, lament­ing the loss of lawns where chil­dren once frol­icked and green pas­tures for cows. Scott’s now con­sid­er­ing a move to Brush, Colorado, and leav­ing her fam­ily’s his­toric homestead farm.

“This will truly be­come the Great Amer­i­can Desert,” she said.

Also known as the High Plains Aquifer, the Ogal­lala un­der­lies 175,000 square miles, in­clud­ing parts of Colorado, Wy­oming, Kansas, Ne­braska, New Mex­ico, Ok­la­homa, South Dakota and Texas. That’s one of the pri­mary agri­cul­tural re­gions of the U.S., pro­duc­ing $35 bil­lion in crops an­nu­ally.

Farm­ers and ranch­ers have been tap­ping into the aquifer since the 1930s to boost pro­duc­tion and help them get by in times of drought.

How­ever, over­pump­ing has dried up 358 miles of sur­face rivers and streams across a 200-square-mile area cov­er­ing eastern Colorado, western Kansas and Ne­braska, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers from Colorado State Univer­sity and Kansas State Univer­sity.

If farm­ers keep pump­ing wa­ter at the cur­rent pace, an­other 177 miles of rivers and streams will be lost be­fore 2060, the re­searchers de­ter­mined.

“We have al­most com­pletely changed the species of fish that can sur­vive in those streams, com­pared with what was there his­tor­i­cally. This is re­ally a cat­a­strophic change,” said Kansas State Univer­sity con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist Keith Gido, one of the au­thors of a re­port on the aquifer pub­lished in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Acad­emy of Sci­ences.

If all pump­ing stopped im­me­di­ately, it would still take hun­dreds of years for rain-fed streams and rivers to recharge the aquifer, Gido said.

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