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for people who care about the West

Western water is petering out


Gerald Spangler needs no statistics or charts to tell him what he already knows: We are running out of water.

Spangler is a semi-retired farmer who has lived in southwest Nebraska, 15 miles east of the Colorado border, since the Dust Bowl days. In 1 979, he drilled his first groundwater well to a depth of 240 feet. Three years ago, the driller had to go down 380 feet at the same site before finding groundwater for domestic use.

That's a 1 40-foot drop in 25 years, and "It's kind of scary," Spangler admits. Spangler's farm is the epitome of an increasingly alarming development across the entire country, particularly the Great Plains and West. A recent National Ground Water Association survey received responses from 43 states nationwide, and all reported water shortages and anticipated more of the same in the future.

Dire straits in Las Vegas, Denver, Phoenix, Houston and other locales are well documented, as is the unsettling state of affairs with the over-appropriated Colorado River. A shortage of available water may also do something nobody ever thought possible: Halt the relentless development up and down the Colorado Rockies' east slopes.

Multi-year drought conditions over much of the nation's heartland and decreased mountain snowmelt in the West -- both likely exacerbated by climate change and both likely to worsen, climatologists say -- have heightened awareness. But clearly, most of the fault for the current dilemma lies with ourselves. Our voracious appetite for water and the development that requires that water are pushing nature to the brink.

The Ogallala Aquifer, which covers 175,000 square miles and underlies eight states in places, has experienced dramatic declines of well over 100 feet in some locations since large-scale irrigation began in the 1 950s. The USGS notes that the aquifer has been depleted by 9 percent since the advent of groundwater irrigation. That doesn't sound like much of a problem, but consider this: A 2001 Kansas State University study warned that only 15 percent of this vast underground ocean is physically and economically feasible to pump to the surface.

Aboveground, the defining waterways of the Plains and West -- the Platte, the Arkansas and the Colorado -- are shells of their former selves after a century of surface diversions and groundwater pumping. Indeed, the headwaters of the Arkansas River near Leadville, Colo. often give out before they get to Dodge City, Kan., 450 miles downstream from Leadville.

If anything is benefiting from all these miscalculations and water grabs, it is our legal system. It took more than two decades of court dates for Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado to reach their recent agreement on flows of the Platte River. Texas and New Mexico have wrangled for years over Pecos River water, and the Klamath's water tension in the Northwest has made newspaper headlines for decades.

To complicate matters, the Midwest's misguided fixation on creating ethanol from water-consuming corn is further endangering our precious groundwater reservoirs. Research shows that it takes 2,000 or more gallons of irrigated water to produce one bushel of corn. Amazingly, after just one year of operation, a single ethanol plant in Granite Falls, Minn., reduced that area's aquifer level by 90 feet.

The days of blank checks for water appropriations and water rights will soon pass into history. We can no longer use our groundwater and surface water as we please, nor for as long as we please. If we wish to avoid a future of water tribulations, we will need to adopt a Depression-era mentality: Recycle and reuse, and most of all, conserve. We will also need to finally consider water as both a public trust and a "commons," and use it accordingly. That will necessitate a painful change of priorities, one that gives recreation and ecosystem preservation seats at the table with municipalities, agriculture and industry.

If we fail to take action, scenarios now playing out in rural and urban areas of the Great Plains westward will become much more common. The phrase "Dust Bowl" is freely tossed about these days, although most refuse to believe it could ever happen again. We should not be so arrogant. Gerald Spangler, for one, will tell you he doesn't want to find out what happens if nature's limits are pushed too hard.

"Human judges can show mercy," visionary Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, "but against the laws of nature, there is no appeal."

Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a journalist and free–lance writer in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].