Reflections on Ogallala Blue

Mar 10, 2017

What will the future hold?
Credit CREATIVE COMMONS

I appreciate Kathy Holt asking me to review Ogallala Blue by William Ashworth for High Plains Public Radio. I had read the book several years ago, and recently read it again for the review. 

Ogallala Blue is a good read for those who are focused on water resource challenges from the environmental, socio-economic, engineering, or well owner perspective. Ashworth uses a series of case studies to describe the history and future challenges of the Ogallala aquifer on the High Plains.    Today, many High Plains communities exist and thrive because of the Ogallala.

In Texas, Ogallala water levels have been declining since the 1930’s because well owners have been pumping more water from the aquifer’s storage than recharge can replenish.  As aquifer levels decline, finding and pumping water becomes progressively costlier to the region’s economy.  I agree with Jeff Johnson’s interview in the book that the High Plains economy based on pumping from the Ogallala will not experience a collapse but “a long slow decline to a lower level”.  To maintain the High Plains economy, stakeholders will need to develop other economic input sources that do not rely so heavily on groundwater.

I manage the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District in Texas, a state that recognizes groundwater as private property right though shared. North Plains is responsible for management of the Ogallala and other aquifers in all or parts of eight counties in the northern part of the Texas Panhandle.  With leadership, local management does work.  The District is governed by a locally elected board of directors of mostly farmers that must balance private property rights with the conservation of a shared resource.  To manage this resource, the District set an annual production limit and requires all large well owners to measure and report their groundwater use.   Telling someone locally to meter and report water production, as well as limit that production, is not an easy task, especially if they are your neighbors.  Caring about the area’s future, the board did exactly that.  The board reasoned that if the District and stakeholders know how much water is being pumped, then they can take steps to better manage and conserve the resource for the future. 

Since setting production limits, the board has engaged in one of the Texas’ largest agriculture water conservation demonstration programs.  The purpose of the program is to focus on grower education and adoption of new conservation farming methods and practices to keep the ag economy viable while saving water for the future, some of these practices are discussed in the book.

In the Texas Panhandle for the foreseeable future, the Ogallala will continue to supply water for cattle and small domestic wells.  However, as the Ogallala continues to decline, cattle feed lots, dairies, and other confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) will import more grain to feed cattle from out of the area than from local growers.  CAFOs already import most of their grain now. Farming operations will continue to implement additional conservation methods and measures, as well as changing crops and cropping patterns to do more with less water to stay in business.   Public water utilities will spend more resources on conservation, continue to drill additional ever smaller wells and if economically viable ultimately import water from out of the area. And industries such as the oil and gas industry will develop alternative lesser quality water sources.  While the district works with stakeholders to stretch Ogallala water resources; I believe new opportunities will present themselves that will allow High Plains to continue to economically thrive.   Ashworth foretells a possible future of the High Plain as the Ogallala continues to decline. I agree with the statement in the book that technology doesn’t stop water level declines.  But I believe that it may point the future of the High Plains in a different productive direction than we can imagine now.   Ogallala Blue is a very good read.