An architect’s rendering shows a Walmart proposed for an area near Zoo Miami containing endangered pine rocklands. Graphic: Ram / Miami Herald

By Jenny Staletovich
13 July 2014

(Miami Herald) – One of the world’s rarest forests, a section of Miami-Dade County’s last intact tracts of endangered pine rockland, is getting a new resident: a Walmart.

About 88 acres of rockland, a globally imperiled habitat containing a menagerie of plants, animals and insects found no place else, was sold this month by the University of Miami to a Palm Beach County developer. To secure permission for the 158,000-square-foot box store, plus an LA Fitness center, Chik-fil-A and Chili’s restaurants and about 900 apartments, the university and the developer, Ram, agreed to set aside 40 acres for a preserve.

Ram also plans to develop 35 adjacent acres still owned by the university.

But with less than 2 percent of the vast savanna that once covered South Florida’s spiny ridge remaining, the deal has left environmentalists and biologists scratching their heads.

“You wonder how things end up being endangered? This is how. This is bad policy and bad enforcement. And shame on UM,” said attorney Dennis Olle, a board member of Tropical Audubon and the North American Butterfly Association, who wrote to Florida’s lead federal wildlife agent Friday demanding an investigation.

The university said in a statement that it is committed to protecting the forests — only about 2,900 acres of rockland are left outside Everglades National Park — and helped execute plans for the preserve, but would not respond to questions.

Ram, which has built dozens of strip shopping centers and dense residential projects across Florida and the Southeast, chose the land at Coral Reef Drive and Southwest 127th Avenue because it provided a “unique chance to create … a place where people can easily walk from the neighborhood to shops and elsewhere,” CEO Casey Cummings said in a written response to questions.

The site also provided easy access to highways and jobs, and met a growing demand for “high-quality rental housing, shopping, fitness and dining options,” he said.

Cummings pointed out that the company could have built even more housing — 1,200 apartments — and added 70,000 square feet of retail space to the 300,000 it has planned. [more]

Walmart planned for endangered forest lands in South Florida


About 88 acres of rockland forest, a globally imperiled habitat containing a menagerie of plants, animals and insects found no place else, was sold in July 2014 by the University of Miami to Palm Beach County developer Ram. The forest will be bulldozed to make room for a Wal-Mart shopping center. Photo: Miguel Vieira

By Jameson Parker
16 July 2014

(AddictingInfo.org) – A pristine patch of Florida forest, the home to dozens of animals species that biologists say are found no where else on the planet, will be bulldozed to make room for a Wal-Mart shopping center.

The 88 acres of rockland was sold by the University of Miami to a developer working for Wal-Mart who plans to build the retail store as well as a Chick-fil-A and Chili’s restaurant. As a concession the firm says it will set aside around 40 acres next to the store that can remain for the animals.

Florida was once a vast savanna, dotted with deep, ancient forests. Today, less than 2 percent of that habitat remains. Consequently, the plants, animals and insects that used to thrive there have been decimated. Environmentalists say that this latest commercial development might be the killing blow for many of them. […]

Many of the flora and fauna now almost extinct once dominated most of Florida, but the grind of urban sprawl has seen nearly every untouched forest in the state destroyed. In a way, this 88 acres was the final stand – the last, desperate stab at survival for animals which have literally no where else on Earth to go.

One species the country doesn’t need more of is Wal-Mart. The corporation has over 4,000 stores in the United States and nearly 200 in Florida alone. It’s likely – should the deal go through – that developers will move quickly to build as soon as possible. Construction teams are in a race against time. Every month more wildlife is uncovered in the land they propose to destroy, and it is getting harder to claim it was worth it or that they didn’t know.  […]

So this is the crossroads we find ourselves in. Are we a country that wants discounted clothing and cheap chicken sandwiches so badly that we are willing to lose some of nature’s most beautiful creatures to get it? And if so, what does that say about us as a society? [more]

One Of World’s Most Endangered Forests Set To Be Demolished To Build Wal-Mart Supercenter

City retirees protest near the federal courthouse in Detroit on 3 July 2014. The city's bankruptcy plan would cut the pensions of nonuniform retirees by 4.5 percent. Photo: Paul Sancya / Associated Press

By Alana Semuels
16 July 2014

DETROIT (Los Angeles Times) – In the year since this city filed for bankruptcy, becoming the largest municipality ever to do so, leaders have adopted a more optimistic tone about the future, pledging to fix streetlights and attract new residents and jobs..

But Eric Byrd isn't buying it.

"No change round here yet," said the 30-year-old, looking around his neighborhood on the west side of the city. Nearly every house on the block is abandoned, hollowed out by fire or vandals. Yards have been reclaimed by tall grass and wildflowers, and the roads are potholed and empty.

By all accounts, Detroit's bankruptcy has been handled quickly and evenhandedly under the guidance of Judge Steven Rhodes. Already, the city has come up with a plan of adjustment and given retirees and employees the chance to vote on it; their ballots were due July 11.

It also has enlisted $816 million from private funds and the state to help limit cuts to city pensions and protect the Detroit Institute of Arts from a fire sale. The city even recently launched an initiative to recruit natives back to the city, inviting them to an event to experience the new Detroit.

Not everyone is impressed, though, especially current and past city employees, who have seen big changes to their health insurance and probably will see reductions in their pensions. Their anger was evident Tuesday, when Rhodes held a hearing to give some the opportunity to voice their objections to the bankruptcy.

"It's more than a tough pill to swallow. It's tantamount to eating an elephant in one bite. And I can't do that," said Beverly Holman, a city retiree, in her testimony.

Their complaints are fueled by fear and distrust: that the process through which retirees had to accept or reject the bankruptcy plan was rigged; that the city is shutting off water to residents unfairly; that retirees will be forced on the dole if the bankruptcy plan goes forward; that City Council members are getting a 5% raise while many retirees are struggling to pay the bills.

Perhaps the biggest objection was to this: The city says the pension funds overpaid into some retirees' accounts and wants that money back. One man testified Tuesday that the city wanted $89,000 from him. Like all retirees in this situation, he has the option of paying it back in a lump sum or having his pension reduced.

In a room open to the public to watch the proceedings, a crowd of 50 or so retirees had gathered, many of them saying they feared they would lose their homes if the bankruptcy plan went forward. They applauded and whooped during the testimony of Holman and others. Applauding is about all they can do at this point because the votes are already in and the city has hinted that the retirees have approved the plan.

"My life is at stake because I can't afford the insurance," said Gisele Caver, another retiree, through tears after telling Rhodes that the cuts to her health plan have made it impossible to pay for the medicine she needs. [more]

A year into Detroit's bankruptcy, many residents still feel abandoned

Fishing fleet capacity and productivity, 1975-2005. A rapid expansion of fishing fleet capacity and technology has resulted in a dramatic drop in productivity. Graphic: UNEP / Global Ocean Commission

24 June 2014 (Global Oceans Commission) – The main drivers leading to overfishing on the high seas are vessel overcapacity and mismanagement. However, measures to improve management alone will not succeed without solving the problem of overcapacity caused by subsidies, particularly fuel subsidies.

Overcapacity is often described as “too many boats trying to catch too few fish”. Indeed, the size of the world’s fleet is currently two-and-a-half times what is necessary to sustainably catch global fish stocks. But it is not only the number of vessels that is of concern, it is also the type of vessel. Many argue that having fewer vessels, when they have larger engines and use more-destructive industrial fishing gear, is of equal weight to the number of vessels fishing as a driver of overcapacity.

Many high seas fisheries destroy value from a societal perspective as the industry requires significant amounts of subsidies to achieve operating profits. This raises significant equity concerns since, in most cases, only those States that can afford subsidies have the opportunity to fish the high seas.

Economic models show that the introduction of cost-reducing subsidies in a fishery system encourages the increase of fishing effort. Vessel overcapacity can be tied to government subsidies because the reduction of operating costs enables the activity to continue when it might not otherwise be economically viable.

“Capacity-enhancing” subsidies include tax exemption programmes; foreign access agreements; boat construction renewal and modernising programmes; fishing port construction and renovation programmes; fishery development projects and supporting services; and fuel subsidies. As an example specific to the high seas, subsidies for the high seas bottom trawl fleets of the 12 top high seas bottom trawling nations amount to US$152 million per year, which represents 25% of the total landed value of the fleet. Typically, the profit achieved by this vessel group is not more than 10% of landed value, meaning that this industry effectively operates at a deficit.

From Decline to Recovery - A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean [pdf]

Aerial view of an uncontacted tribe in the Peruvian amqazon. The tribe is believed to have taken refuge in Brazil after escaping Peru, due to illegal logging and drug trafficking, occurring in the country. Photo: Gleison Miranda / FUNAI

By Jonathan Brown
20 July 2014

(The Independent) – When they emerged from the forest on the outskirts of an Ashaninka indigenous community on the upper reaches of Brazil's Envira river, it was the first time in recent history that members of an uncontacted tribe of Amazonian Indians had chosen to leave their home and visit a settled population. But 80 tribe members have now returned to the forest on the Peru-Brazil border, despite the threat of violence and disease.

Before they went back, some who were showing flu-like symptoms were immunised by government doctors. That some of the tribe were already ill could explain why they took the unprecedented step of entering a settled village last month.

It has also emerged, however, that they were fleeing heavily armed drug traffickers who had attacked them upstream in Peru – showing that outside incursions are being made deep into the heart of their traditional protected territories.

Previously, it had been thought that they had been disturbed by the presence of heavily armed loggers, a growing industry in Peru. The mahogany and teak harvested by the gangs is believed to be destined to be made into garden furniture in Europe or the US. Under international law, the Indians have the right to their own traditional territories.

The disclosure by Funai, Brazil's Indian protection agency, that at least seven members of the group were suffering from a virus normally found among outside populations has caused deep alarm among campaigners for the rights of indigenous peoples. It is not known whether other members of the tribe were sick and had refused to receive medication, prompting fears that they could spread disease on their return to their centuries-old way of life.

The spread of minor ailments such as measles or even the common cold has in the past led to deadly epidemics devastating populations of tribes which have built up no immunity.

José Carlos Meirelles, of Funai, said the tribe had gone back to their villages where the infection could spread to other members of their community. He said the Brazilian government now planned to re-establish a permanent base of officials in the highly remote region to offer better protection in the future.

Linguists brought in to help mediate the contact – the first with an unknown tribe for more than 30 years – said the Indians reported "suffering acts of violence" on the Peruvian side of the border. Cocaine smugglers are known to be active in the region as well as loggers, flouting the land rights of the Amazonian communities. It is the first time in recent memory that an uncontacted tribe has voluntarily left isolation. [more]

'Lost' tribe returns to the rainforest despite the threat of violence and disease

Deforestation in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has lost nearly 100,000 hectares in the last 14 years, representing nearly 1.5 percent of its land area. Graphic: Global Forest Watch

By Janaki Lenin
15 July 2014

(mongabay.com) – In 1983, Sri Lanka became embroiled in a 26-year-long civil war in which a rebel militant organization fought to establish an independent state called Tamil Eelam. The war took an enormous human toll; unknown numbers disappeared and millions more were displaced. Economic development stagnated in the rebel-held north and east of the country, while foreign investment shied away from the country.

During the latter half of the war, between 1990 and 2005, Sri Lanka suffered one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world as government soldiers burned vast tracts to flush rebels out of their forest strongholds.As a result, the country lost about 35 percent of its old growth forest and almost 18 percent of its total forest cover.

The conflict ended in 2009, and while deforestation has slowed somewhat, Sri Lanka is still losing forest cover at a fast clip. Global Forest Watch figures show 49,652 hectares were lost between 2009 and 2012.

Sri Lanka, a small island nation located off the southern tip of India, has the highest biodiversity in all of Asia, and is regarded as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Together with India’s Western Ghats, the region once had nearly 200,000 square kilometers (77,000 square miles) of important wildlife habitat, of which less than seven percent remains intact today. Because of its isolation and tropical climate, Sri Lanka is home to many unique species and subspecies found nowhere else, such as the purple-faced langur (Trachypithecus vetulus) and the Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus), both of which are listed as Endangered by the IUCN. [more]

On track to 'go beyond the critical point': Sri Lanka still losing forests at rapid clip

The lawn in front of the California State Capitol is seen dead on 18 June 2014 in Sacramento, California. As the California drought conitnues, the grounds at the California State Capitol are under a reduced watering program and groundskeepers have let sections of the lawn die off in an effort to use less water. Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

By DON THOMPSON
15 July 2014

SACRAMENTO, California (AP) – In one of the most drastic responses yet to California's drought, state regulators on Tuesday will consider fines up to $500 a day for people who waste water on landscaping, fountains, washing vehicles and other outdoor uses.
   
The rules would prohibit the watering of landscaping to the point that runoff spills onto sidewalks or streets. Hosing down sidewalks, driveways and other hard surfaces would be banned along with washing vehicles without a shut-off nozzle.

Violations would be infractions punishable by the fines, although most cities are likely to have a sliding scale that starts with a warning and increases for repeat violations.

The State Water Resources Control Board said it received about 100 written comments after it proposed the emergency regulations last week.

"So far, people have been pretty supportive," board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said. "I think people recognize that we're taking a moderate approach and we're sending a message as much as anything."

The board estimates that the proposed restrictions could save enough water statewide to supply more than 3.5 million people for a year. That's enough to meet the needs of nearly nine of every 10 Los Angeles residents.

The California Department of Water Resources estimates that cities and suburbs use about a fifth of the state's water, about half going outdoors. Agriculture is by far the greatest water user, accounting for 75 percent of the state's consumption.

San Francisco officials worry about the prohibition on washing streets and sidewalks. Public Works Department spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said that could interfere with the frequent cleaning of alleys to wash away human waste where there are high concentrations of homeless people.

"We feel very strongly that this is a health and safety issue for people in San Francisco," she said.

Nor does it do much for tourism if visitors see or smell the waste. During the past 12 months, she said the city responded to about 8,000 calls to steam clean streets of human waste. [more]

California water wasters could be fined $500 a day

Screenshot from the Heartland Institute's 9th conference on climate change, which featured the usual climate science denialists. The conference was held in July 2014, when Lake Mead reached its lowest level since it was filled in 1937. Photo: Heartland Institute

By Will Oremus
9 July 2014

(Slate) – Las Vegas is parched. A 14-year drought has left Lake Mead, the local water source, dangerously low. It has dropped 100 feet in the past decade. If it drops 12 more feet, federal water rationing rules will kick in. Some climate scientists predict that will happen in the next year. And most believe the situation will only worsen over time.

The view from inside Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, however, is considerably rosier. That’s where scientists, activists, and bloggers have assembled this week for the Heartland Institute’s 9th International Conference on Climate Change, which I’ve been following via live stream. It’s the world’s largest gathering of “climate skeptics”—people who believe, for one reason or another, that the climate change crisis is overblown.

It’s tempting to find irony in the spectacle of hundreds of climate change deniers staging their convention amid a drought of historic proportions. But, as the conference organizers are quick to tell you, they aren’t actually climate change deniers. The majority of this year’s speakers readily acknowledge that the climate is changing. Some­ will even concede that human emissions are playing a role. They just think the solutions are likely to be far worse than the problem.

“I don’t think anybody in this room denies climate change,” the Heartland Institute’s James M. Taylor said in his opening remarks Monday. “We recognize it, but we’re looking more at the causes, and more importantly, the consequences.” Those consequences, Taylor and his colleagues are convinced, are unlikely to be catastrophic—and they might even turn out to be beneficial.

Don’t call them climate deniers. Call them climate optimists.

They aren’t an entirely new phenomenon. Fossil-fuel advocates have been touting the advantages of climate change since at least 1992, when the Western Fuels Association put out a pro­–global warming video called “The Greening of Planet Earth.” (It was a big hit with key figures in the George W. Bush administration.) Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt, traces this line of thinking even further back, to a 1983 report in which physicist Bill Nierenberg argued that humans would have no trouble adapting to a warmer world.

As global warming became more politically polarized, however, coal lobbyists and their shills largely discarded the “global warming is good” approach in favor of questioning the science behind climate change models.  These days the liberal stereotype of the climate change denier sounds more like James Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma who dismisses “the global warming thing” as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” (He still appears to believe that.)

There are still a good number of Inhofe types at the Heartland Institute’s conferences. But the pendulum of conservative sentiment may be swinging away from such conspiracy theories. Over the past few years, a concerted campaign by climate scientists and environmentalists, backed by mountains of evidence, has largely succeeded in branding climate change denial as “anti-science” and pushing it to the margins of public discourse. Leading news outlets no longer feel compelled to “balance” every climate change story with quotes from cranks who don’t believe in it. Last month, the president of the United States mocked climate deniers as a “radical fringe” that might as well believe the moon is “made of cheese.”

The backlash to the anti-science movement has left Republican leaders unsure of their ground. As Jonathan Chait pointed out in New York magazine, their default response to climate change questions has become, “I’m not a scientist.”

It’s a clever stalling tactic, allowing the speaker to convey respect for science without accepting the scientific consensus. But it’s also a cop-out, and it seems unlikely either to appease the right-wing base or to persuade the majority of Americans who have no trouble believing that the climate is changing despite not being scientists themselves. At last count, 57 percent told Gallup they believe human activities are to blame for rising global temperatures. That’s up from a low of 50 percent in 2010. [more]

The Climate Optimists

'Hope', painting by George Frederic Watts, 1886.

"To the philosopher, the physician, the meteorologist and the chemist, there is perhaps no subject more attractive than that of ozone." ~ C.B Fox, 1873

By Gail Zawacki
11 July 2014

(Wit’s End) – There is a man who lives on the other side of my village (it is said) who one day, setting out for errands, inadvertently ran over his child as he backed out of the driveway. Ever since I heard this tragic tale, I have thought I can imagine the moment that, thunderstruck with horror and frozen in disbelief, he gazed upon that little mangled body.  I think I know the ferocious dread that overcame him when first he realized that the car of which he was so proudly enamored - that quintessential symbol of success, the pinnacle of modern technology and shiny avatar of individual freedom - was the very same mighty instrument of folly that had literally crushed the one thing most important to him - his progeny, his future.

I suffer his tumultuous and inconsolable grief because that is how I greet every new day since abruptly I came to understand that the splendid, intricate, exquisitely entwined tapestry of life is unraveling. This realization rushed into my consciousness like a dark sinister flood by an odd circumstance.  In the summer of 2008 I suddenly noticed an irrefutable signal - that trees, the essential foundation of so much biodiversity, are dying prematurely.  It was a hot, dry August, and everywhere the leaves were drooping, limp and lifeless.  My curiosity piqued, the more I looked, the more I found indisputable, incontrovertible symptoms of irreversible decay.  It was only the beginning recognition of an ominous trend.  Now, the mute indicators of deterioration are common - swathes of bare branches protrude above the canopy.

Possessing just a rudimentary knowledge of the timescales involved in evolution was enough for me to realize the formidable outcome that must result as trees die off, when myriad crashes reverberate throughout the biosphere.  Eventually, a total collapse of the ecosystem will be inevitable. Initially I speculated that the reason trees manifest terminal afflictions could only be attributed to the changing climate - surely the sole influence extensive enough to instigate such a colossal catastrophe.  And yet, the climactic mechanisms - precipitation and temperature - did not consistently correlate with the empirical evidence I found, which was puzzling.  It turns out, as incredible as it may seem, that the primary reason all species of trees - old and young, coniferous and deciduous - are in precipitous decline is their exposure to pollution.

Following Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the Clean Air Act, and Earth Day, like many others I had assumed that pollution was under control, at least in the US, where I live.  But after becoming immersed in countless books, articles, government reports and conference catalogs, the overwhelming data persuaded me to reluctantly admit that the opposite is the case.  I had no idea the extent to which an entire industry of corporate vultures and unscrupulous lobbyists had been systematically undermining regulations - in the courts, in elections, in universities.  The barrage of emissions from our cars and trucks, our planes and ships, our factories and power plants, our petroleum-based fertilizers, our fracking wells and flares…all rise and mingle and travel around the globe in devastating concentrations.  Unlike the visible, murky components of smog that have been, somewhat, regulated and reduced - sulfur dioxide and particulate matter - nitrous oxides continued to proliferate and have come to bathe the air, water and soil in a venomous chemical witch's brew.

Whenever fuel is combusted at high temperatures - such as, to run an engine - the abundant nitrogen in the air becomes oxidized, which is why little has been done to curtail it as a pollutant.  The single remedy would be to stop burning fuel.  Meanwhile, the reactive nitrogen traverses oceans and continents, as does methane, another ozone precursor that is increasing.  As they go in and out of complex chemical interactions volatile organic compounds, catalyzed by UV radiation, the air has become saturated beyond a threshold that is tolerable to plants.  Invisible but highly toxic, the persistent background level of ozone in the troposphere is inexorably rising, as more and more precursors are emitted - particularly from booming Asia.

Science has become ever more specialized, which is marvelous and elegant, but such compartmentalization tends to obscure and dilute a holistic picture of ecology.  And so even though ozone is a product of reactive nitrogen, the eutrophication of the world's waters and the ruin of the soil and air are almost always considered as separate issues.  In 2011, Alan Townsend of U Colorado termed the nitrogen cascade "the biggest environmental disaster nobody has ever heard of".  The disruption of the cycle was also was named in the Stockholm Resilience Centre's famed "Nine Boundaries" study as one of the thresholds that we must not - but already have - breached.  One fascinating paper that examined numerous nefarious processes - deemed "an onslaught of acid loading" - was written by Rice and Herman, titled "Acidification of Earth:  An assessment across mechanisms and scales".  Published in 2011, it should have instigated widespread alarm, but instead was promptly forgotten. [more]

A Fine Frenzy ~ the universal dance of delusion...and the paucity of hope

The relentless Kansas wind strips a dry, bare field and sends the topsoil to obscure a county road. Photo: Gil Aegerter / NBC News

By Brian Brown
13 July 2014

MANHATTAN, Kansas (NBC News) – In America’s Breadbasket, a battle of ideas is underway on the most fundamental topics of all: food, water, and the future of the planet.

Last August, in a still-echoing blockbuster study, Dave Steward, Ph.D., and his colleagues at Kansas State University, informed the $15 billion Kansas agricultural economy that it was on a fast track to oblivion. The reason: The precipitous, calamitous withdrawal rates of the Ogallala Aquifer.

The Ogallala is little known outside this part of the world, but it’s the primary source of irrigation not just for all of western Kansas, but the entire Great Plains. This gigantic, soaked subterranean sponge – fossil water created 10 million years ago – touches eight states, stretching from Texas all the way up to South Dakota, across 111.8 million acres and 175,000 square miles.

The Ogallala supports a highly-sophisticated and amazingly-productive agricultural region critical to the world’s food supply. With the global population increasing, and as other vital aquifers suffer equally dramatic declines, scientists acknowledge that if the farmers here cannot meet ever-growing food demands, billions could starve.

Steward’s study predicted that nearly 70 percent of the portion of the Ogallala beneath western Kansas will be gone in 50 years. He’s not the kind of person to shout these results; he speaks slowly and carefully. Yet, he has the evident intensity of one who’s serving a greater purpose. “We need to make sure our grandkids and our great grandkids have the capacity to feed themselves,” he says.

Now the chief executive of the state, himself from a farming family, is using Steward’s report as a call to action.

“One of the things we [have] to get over … is this tragedy of the commons problem with the Ogallala,” says Governor Sam Brownback, a Republican who at age 29 was the youngest agriculture secretary in state history. “It’s a big common body of water. It’s why the oceans get overfished … You have a common good and then nobody is responsible for it.”

“That’s one of the key policy issues that you have to get around,” Brownback says in his roomy, towering office at the capitol in Topeka. “Everyone has to take care of this water.”

In that spirit, a tiny legion of farmers and landowners in the northwest corner of Kansas, where the Rockies begin their rise, have just begun year two of what could be one of the most influential social experiments of this century.

The group is only 125 in number but controls 63,000 acres of prime farmland in Sheridan County. Collectively, voluntarily, they have enacted a new, stringent five-year water conservation target, backed by the force of law and significant punishments.

The Local Enhanced Management Act, or LEMA, is the first measure of its kind in the United States. Specifically, the farmers are limiting themselves to a total of 55 inches of irrigated water over five years – an average of 11 inches per year. [more]

Heartland Water Crisis: Why the Planet Depends on These Kansas Farmers


Irrigated agriculture is supported by groundwater pumping that exceeds the rate of recharge in most regions of western Kansas, which led to depletion of the High Plains Aquifer. The groundwater level is measured across a network of observation wells, and results are individually fitted to a logistic regression model. Graphic: Steward, et al., 2013

MANHATTAN, Kansas (KSU) – If current irrigation trends continue, 69 percent of the groundwater stored in the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas will be depleted in 50 years. But immediately reducing water use could extend the aquifer's lifetime and increase net agricultural production through the year 2110.

Those findings are part of a recently published study by David Steward, professor of civil engineering, and colleagues at Kansas State University. The study investigates the future availability of groundwater in the High Plains Aquifer -- also called the Ogallala Aquifer -- and how reducing use would affect cattle and crops. The aquifer supplies 30 percent of the nation's irrigated groundwater and serves as the most agriculturally important irrigation in Kansas.

"Tapping unsustainable groundwater stores for agricultural production in the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas, projections to 2110" appears in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, or PNAS. The study took four years to complete and was funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Kansas State University's Rural Transportation Institute.

"I think it's generally understood that the groundwater levels are going down and that at some point in the future groundwater pumping rates are going to have to decrease," Steward said. "However, there are lots of questions about how long the water will last, how long the aquifer will take to refill and what society can do."

Steward conducted the study with Kansas State University's Michael Apley, professor of clinical sciences and an expert in cattle production; Stephen Welch, professor of agronomy, who helped with a statistics method called bootstrapping; Scott Staggenborg, adjunct professor in agronomy who studies agricultural production methods; Paul Bruss, a 2011 master's degree graduate in civil engineering; and Xiaoying Yang, a former postdoctoral research assistant who is now at Fudan University in China.

Using measurements of groundwater levels in the past and present day in those regions, Steward and colleagues developed a statistical model that projected groundwater declines in western Kansas for the next 100 years and the effect it will have to cattle and crops.

According to their model, researchers estimated that 3 percent of the aquifer's water had been used by 1960. By 2010, 30 percent of the aquifer's water had been tapped. An additional 39 percent of the aquifer's reserve is projected to be used by 2060 -- resulting in the loss of 69 percent of the aquifer's groundwater given current use. Once depleted, the aquifer could take an average of 500-1,300 years to completely refill given current recharge rates, Steward said.

Although the High Plains Aquifer will continue declining, researchers anticipate even greater efficiencies in water use during the next 15-20 years.

"Society has been really smart about using water more efficiently, and it shows," Steward said. "Water use efficiencies have increased by about 2 percent a year in Kansas, which means that every year we're growing about 2 percent more crop for each unit of water. That's happening because of increased irrigation technology, crop genetics, and water management strategies."

As a result, researchers anticipate that while peak water use will happen around 2025, western Kansas will see increased corn and cattle production until the year 2040. What happens past that time frame depends on what decisions are made about reducing the use of the aquifer's water in the near future, Steward said.

The team conducted several hypothetical scenarios that reduced the current pumping rate by 20 percent, 40 percent, 60 percent and 80 percent. Steward said the researchers went as high as 80 percent because that closely aligned with the aquifer's natural groundwater recharge rate of about 15 percent of current pumping.

"The main idea is that if we're able to save water today, it will result in a substantial increase in the number of years that we will have irrigated agriculture in Kansas," Steward said. "We'll be able to get more crop in the future and more total crop production from each unit of water because those efficiencies are projected to increase in the future."

Steward said he hoped the study helps support the current dialogue about decisions affecting how water can help build resiliency for agriculture in the future.

"We really wrote the paper for the family farmer who wants to pass his land on to his grandchildren knowing that they will have the same opportunities that farmers do today," Steward said. "As a society, we have an opportunity to make some important decisions that will have consequences for future generations, who may or may not be limited by those decisions."

Study forecasts future water levels of crucial agricultural aquifer

 

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