The Ogallala aquifer is one of the world’s largest underground bodies of water, and many ecosystems and communities in the American West depend upon it – however the aquifer is in rapid decline due to over-exploitation of its resources. According to the Denver Post, farmers in eight American states (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and South Dakota) are putting strain on the aquifer by overdrawing water from beneath the soil they cultivate in a $35 billion dollar per year industry. If allowed to continue, this could threaten both the livelihood of farmers and the ecosystems of the West, which could be replaced by a ‘Great American Desert.’

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Because of the region’s intensive farming practices, agricultural wells are extracting water from the Ogallala aquifer significantly faster than it is being replenished. This trend appears to have accelerated in recent years. Federal data indicates that the aquifer contracted twice as fast in the past six years as it had in the previous sixty, with a significant impact on everyday water use in the West. “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, who lives on a family farm in Cope, Colorado, in an interview with the Denver Post. “The aquifer is being depleted. This will truly become the Great American Desert.”

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As a result of the exploitation of the Ogallala, at least 358 miles of rivers and streams have dried up within a 200-square-mile area in Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska. If trends continued, an additional 177 miles of rivers and streams are expected to dry out by 2060. “We have almost completely changed the species of fish that can survive in those streams, compared with what was there historically,” said Keith Gido, author of a recent scientific report on the aquifer’s depletion, in an interview with the Denver Post. “We’re not living in as sustainable a fashion as we need to be. Much of the damage has been done.” The over-exploitation of the Ogallala aquifer and the plight of the American West is sadly not unique to the region. “It is happening all over the world in places such as Pakistan. It causes conflicts,” said Gido. “As human populations grow, the demand for water is going to be greater. Conflicts are going to increase—unless we become more efficient in using the water we have.”

Via EcoWatch and the Denver Post

Images via Depositphotos and USGS/Flickr