An frayed American flag stands sentinel over the harsh Texas Panhandle landscape and Lucas Spinhirne’s farm southwest of Vega, Texas. The tattered edge is a testament to the relentless wind in the Panhandle. Photo: Gil Aegerter / NBC News

By Brian Brown
6 July 2014

VEGA, Texas (NBC News) – While a high-pitched wind rattles the windows, and assaults a flapping, fraying American flag in the front yard, Lucas Spinhirne knows he’s staring into an abyss that many in Texas—and across the world—may be forced to contemplate.

The once bounteous quantities of water that flowed under his farmland in the Texas Panhandle are a distant memory–pumped to the last drop. Now there is only one source of water for his wheat and sorghum: the sky above. “We try to catch anything that falls,” Spinhirne says.

The scope of this mounting crisis is difficult to overstate: The High Plains of Texas are swiftly running out of groundwater supplied by one of the world’s largest aquifers – the Ogallala. A study by Texas Tech University has predicted that if groundwater production goes unabated, vast portions of several counties in the southern High Plains will soon have little water left in the aquifer to be of any practical value.

The Ogallala Aquifer spreads across eight states, from Texas to South Dakota, covering 111.8 million acres and 175,000 square miles. It’s the fountain of life not only for much of the Texas Panhandle, but also for the entire American Breadbasket of the Great Plains, a highly-sophisticated, amazingly-productive agricultural region that literally helps feed the world.

This catastrophic depletion is primarily manmade. By the early eighties, automated center-pivot irrigation devices were in wide use – those familiar spidery-armed wings processing in a circle atop wheeled tripods. This super-sized sprinkler system allowed farmers to water crops more regularly and effectively, which both significantly increased crop yields and precipitously drained the Ogallala.

Compounding the drawdown has been the nature of the Ogallala itself. Created 10 million years ago, this buried fossil water is–in many places—not recharged by precipitation or surface water. When it’s gone, it’s gone for centuries.

“This country became what it became largely because we had water security,” says Venki Uddameri, Ph.D., director of the Water Resources Center at Texas Tech. “That’s being threatened to a large degree now.”

With the world population increasing, and other critical global aquifers suffering equally dramatic declines, scientists acknowledge that if the American Breadbasket cannot help supply ever-growing food demands, billions could starve.

“The depletion of the Ogallala is an internationally important crisis,” says Burke Griggs, Ph.D., consulting professor at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. “How individual states manage the depletion of that aquifer will obviously have international consequences.” […]

In the Texas Panhandle, the race to survive a frightening new normal is well underway.

“We’re headed for a brick wall at 100 miles per hour,” says James Mahan, Bruce Spinhirne’s father-in-law and a plant physiologist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service lab in Lubbock. “And, really, the effects of climate change are branches hitting the windshield along the way.” [more]

The Last Drop: America's Breadbasket Faces Dire Water Crisis



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