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Will Rain Follow the Plow?
Prophecy - Signs
Monday, March 14, 2011
Ed DeShields

Most of the 100 people invited to a special meeting in the small Texas panhandle town of Plainview showed up promptly.  They weren’t there to discuss the sleepy humdrum of this high plains ranching community.  They were there to plan for a future without water and its eminent effect on the world’s food supply.

At stake is more than $20 billion per year in food and fiber production that could vanish from the world’s markets if the Ogallala Aquifer, the vast underground store of water that supports the middle third of the United States, is depleted.  The problem?  The Ogallala cannot be replenished.  

The natural run off from the Rockies has been interrupted by erosion thereby diverting the water away from the underground reservoir.  The problem is not unique to underground water.  Surface water, including the once mighty rivers of the west no longer reach their basins.  The Colorado River is dry before it reaches the Pacific.  Even the Rio Grande no longer reaches the Gulf.

That’s pretty important news for a town of ranchers so small that cattle easily outnumber people. Irrigation has transformed high plains fields of grass into corn, sorghum, soybeans, wheat and cotton into a bounty, irrigated by wells tapping the Ogallala, that seem to go on forever.  The area is so vast that in 1541 the Spanish conquistador Fernando Coronado described it as “this sea of grass so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I travelled over them for more than 300 leagues ... with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea [of grass]”. 

On America’s high plains, crops in early summer stretch from the Texas panhandle to South Dakota.  This is the breadbasket of America—the region that supplies at least one fifth of the total annual U.S. agricultural harvest.  When farmers of the 1930’s discovered water beneath, they knew 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. If the Ogallala goes dry, this area could return to the dust bowl era and a vast food producing area will vanish.   Scientists say it will take natural processes 6,000 years to refill the reservoir – if ever.

If spread across the U.S., the Ogallala once would have covered all 50 states with 1.5 feet of water.   Unfortunately, only fifteen percent of this fresh water is retrievable.  Today, it’s primarily used for crop irrigation with more than 90 percent of the water pumped from it used to help feed the world.  In some areas the water table has dropped so low that the retrievable water is gone.

Plainview, Texas is the early warning signal.  It lies on the southern, and most shallow end of the aquifer.   Over time, the Texas panhandle will go dry, followed by Kansas, then Nebraska as the deeper parts of the reservoir are reached.  The farther north you go, the more fertile the land and the deeper the Ogallala – but the shorter the growing season.

The infamous oilman, T. Boone Pickens is preparing to pump the Ogallala via pipeline to metropolitan areas as far away as Dallas.   Under Texas water rights law, you have a 'right to capture'.  This means that if you have water under your land, or in a river running through it, you can take and use as much of it as you like. You can water the corn or the cows, or you can make a buck by selling it to the nearest thirsty suburb. If you want to drain your land into desert, you may.

According to the US Agriculture Department agency’s Ogallala Research Service, the irrigated Plains grow 20 per cent of American grain and corn, and America's industrial agriculture dominates international markets. A collapse of those markets would lead to starvation in Africa and anywhere else where a meal depends on cheap American exports. “The Ogallala supply is going to run out and the Plains will become uneconomical to farm,” department chief Brauer says.  “That is beyond reasonable argument. Our goal now is to engineer a soft landing. That's all we can do.”

Estimates vary, but with careful conservation, less wasteful irrigation and seeds for corn, cotton, wheat and sorghum genetically engineered for drought conditions, farming may yet go on for 60 years.  That would be limited to the area over the deepest stratum of the Ogallala.

There is the old colloquialism that says “rain follows the plow” thereby wishing for prosperity to a farmer’s new crop.   Unfortunately without it, and the Ogallala, the dust may start blowing in as few as 10 years.

About Ed DeShields

Last article:  Blueprint or Scramble?  Earth at a Crossroads says Big Oil.

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