For decades, alarmed environmentalists have speculated that the next Civil War will be fought over water rights. Tension is especially high in the eight Plains states relying heavily on the Ogallala Aquifer, which consists of billions of gallons of water deposited underground by prehistoric rivers. The aquifer is drying up, and most of the states are seeing precipitous declines in their water reserves. But it is drying unevenly; the regions and states where development is heaviest are being hit hardest, and residents of those areas increasingly find themselves at loggerheads with their neighbors in the less-developed parts of the High Plains.

In Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the Great Plains, William Ashworth demonstrates the profound social and ecological consequences wrought by our heavy exploitation of water resources. Ashworth — a journalist who has written extensively on water issues and other environmental topics — intersperses his political and economic analysis with portraits of the people who are affected by the Ogallala’s depletion. And at some level, those people are all of us, no matter where we live. “It is hard to overestimate the impact that this bounty of buried water has had on American life,” Ashworth writes. “If you snack on popcorn or peanuts, you are probably eating Ogallala water; if you dress in cotton clothing, you are probably wearing it. […] If the aquifer went dry, more than $20 billion worth of food and fiber would disappear immediately from the world’s markets.”

The subtle message of Ashworth’s research is that all of nature, and by extension all of human nature, is interconnected. He explores the deep animosities that water scarcity can ignite, analyzing the profiteering that has begun to occur in states like Texas, “where antiquated water laws allow well owners to suck water from beneath their neighbors’ land and sell it to the highest bidder.” Other vexing questions center around allocation: After the water is pumped from the aquifer, who receives it? Who becomes the arbiter when farmers compete with each other for water — in addition to competing with municipalities, industries, recreational users, and animals living in the wild? And some issues focus on quality: When the water table drops, will the water remain safe to drink, irrigate crops, or ready supermarket-bound livestock for the slaughterhouse?

As we draw water out of the aquifer for any purpose (whether drinking, washing our cars, or filling man-made lakes), Ashworth explains, it cannot be replenished fully by rainfall or snowmelt, because too many people are using too much water too quickly. Even the biggest storms can’t recharge the Ogallala as they did in prehistoric eras, when snowmelt trickled into the aquifer from the distant Rocky Mountains: Today we’ve paved over and developed so much land that the Ogallala’s connection to those streams has been severed. Since the advent of widespread irrigation during the 1950s, 11 percent of the aquifer’s original volume has disappeared.

That irrigation, of course, has been critical for the region — agriculture above the Ogallala today would not exist without it. But irrigating becomes increasingly expensive as water becomes scarcer; as a result, Ashworth shows, many family farmers now cannot afford to pay their water bills. So they sell the farms, often to corporate owners that care little for the social fabric of the locale, and the families move to area towns, where they may live near the poverty level. What’s more, corporate farming frequently involves using pesticides and agricultural chemicals to increase crop yields — and unless they’re applied at just the right dosage, the excess chemicals seep into the aquifer, resulting in persistent, widespread groundwater pollution that can harm grasses, trees, animals —and eventually people.

Is there an upside to all this doom and gloom? Ashworth does point to promising small-scale responses to the Ogallala problem that could serve as models for other communities that depend on aquifers. “We can, and should, prepare” for the Ogallala’s certain demise, he says. Water politics may change irreparably in the coming years, but with some clever management and cooperation between environmentalists and farmers, we may be able to reduce our consumption of the valuable resource — and thus learn to preserve our remaining stores of water.

Story by Steve Weinberg. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2006. This story was added to in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.

Water rights
A veteran enviro reporter explains why declining water reserves in eight states affect life across the U.S.