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Pissing away our supergiant fossil water aquifer, the Ogallala

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  • Mon, Jul 22, 2019 - 01:43pm

    #1
    rcbaker

    rcbaker

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    Pissing away our supergiant fossil water aquifer, the Ogallala

Is oil the most important resource that we historically tend to mismanage in Texas?

No, now that the easy oil is mostly gone, we do even worse these days with our limited water, including our fossil water, and for many of the same archaic reasons. There are laws for underground water and other stricter laws for surface water even when it is often the same water leaking back and forth.

And now there are Texas water czars.

There is little doubt that if this resource were managed intelligently and for the long term it would be done better.  Now each farmer can still try to out-pump his neighbor and it often ends up in the courts, due to Tx right-of capture-law.

Clearly, there should be some regulation authority for water like the Texas Railroad Commission was for oil. In a better kinder parallel universe, I think state of Texas would hire and listen to Israeli irrigation advisors and develop regional conservation policies.

If you use Google Maps to look at the satellite images around Lubbock or Plainview Texas, you see vast numbers of brown abandoned pivot irrigation systems, or only partly filled green circles. Sometimes they are greener across the areas that reveal the very local ability to pump the water. What is the corporate influence or is it between farmers and their bankers? Are there regional water cooperatives, like to share neighboring pivot plot water for common benefit?

Do we really need to grow corn more than milo (a suitable human food widely eaten in Europe but like corn chiefly used for animal feed here), the milo (or sorgum) yielding more calories from the same remaining fossil water? In this case, there is at least some scholarly attention to the bioregional economics of crops by Texas A&M, a TX agriculture advisory body.

Since water can be pumped anytime, solar electric power should have a distinct advantage as an intermittent water pumping power source.

This snip from the NYT story also catches my attention.

“A fourth grows corn with an underground irrigation system that does not match the yields of water-wasting center-pivot rigs, but is far thriftier in terms of water use and operating costs.”

What is the best economic role for underground irrigation versus pivot, if we think long term and now don’t have much water left? Did we learn nothing from our dust bowl days of the 1930s when we briefly turned to smart cooperative agricultural policies?

“You can choose an individual zone you want to irrigate or irrigate the entire system,” Meiners says. “Depending on the size of the pump, it takes 24 to 36 hours to apply an acre inch of water. The subirrigation system uses about one-third the water that a center pivot uses. We bury the lines 2 to 3 ft. deep, and our data so far show that yield doesn’t vary across the field, either over the top of the lines or in between them.”

(Source)

— Roger

 

Here are a few additional article snippets worth reading on the topic:

Center Pivot Irrigation Negative Effects (wikipedia
Fossil water is a non-renewable resource. Groundwater levels decrease when the rate of extraction by irrigation exceeds the rate of recharge. By 2013 it was shown that as the water consumption efficiency of center-pivot irrigation improved over the years, farmers planted more intensively, irrigated more land, and grew thirstier crops.[9]

In parts of the United States, sixty years of the profitable business of intensive farming using huge center-pivot irrigators has emptied parts of the Ogallala Aquifer (also known as the High Plains Aquifer).[9] One of the world’s largest aquifers, it covers an area of approximately 174,000 mi² (450,000 km²) in portions of the eight states of South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas, beneath the Great Plains in the United States.[12][13]

In 1950, irrigated cropland covered 250,000 acres. With the use of center-pivot irrigation, nearly three million acres of land were irrigated in Kansas alone. At some places, during maximum extraction, the water table dropped more than five feet (1.5 m) per year. In extreme cases, wells had to be greatly deepened to reach the steadily falling water table.[9] In some places in the Texas Panhandle, the water table has been drained (dewatered). “Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile (160 km) swath of the aquifer has already gone dry.” It would take hundreds to thousands of years of rainfall to replace the groundwater in the dried up aquifer.[9]

Wells Dry, Fertile Plains Turn to Dust (NYTimes)

Near Garden City, Kan., the High Plains Aquifer is giving out.
By Michael Wines

May 19, 2013

HASKELL COUNTY, Kan. — Forty-nine years ago, Ashley Yost’s grandfather sank a well deep into a half-mile square of rich Kansas farmland. He struck an artery of water so prodigious that he could pump 1,600 gallons to the surface every minute.

Last year, Mr. Yost was coaxing just 300 gallons from the earth, and pumping up sand in order to do it. By harvest time, the grit had robbed him of $20,000 worth of pumps and any hope of returning to the bumper harvests of years past.

“That’s prime land,” he said not long ago, gesturing from his pickup at the stubby remains of last year’s crop. “I’ve raised 294 bushels of corn an acre there before, with water and the Lord’s help.” Now, he said, “it’s over.”

The land, known as Section 35, sits atop the High Plains Aquifer, a waterlogged jumble of sand, clay and gravel that begins beneath Wyoming and South Dakota and stretches clear to the Texas Panhandle. The aquifer’s northern reaches still hold enough water in many places to last hundreds of years. But as one heads south, it is increasingly tapped out, drained by ever more intensive farming and, lately, by drought.

Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers.

And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains.

This is in many ways a slow-motion crisis — decades in the making, imminent for some, years or decades away for others, hitting one farm but leaving an adjacent one untouched. But across the rolling plains and tarmac-flat farmland near the Kansas-Colorado border, the effects of depletion are evident everywhere. Highway bridges span arid stream beds. Most of the creeks and rivers that once veined the land have dried up as 60 years of pumping have pulled groundwater levels down by scores and even hundreds of feet.

On some farms, big center-pivot irrigators — the spindly rigs that create the emerald circles of cropland familiar to anyone flying over the region — now are watering only a half-circle. On others, they sit idle altogether.

Two years of extreme drought, during which farmers relied almost completely on groundwater, have brought the seriousness of the problem home. In 2011 and 2012, the Kansas Geological Survey reports, the average water level in the state’s portion of the aquifer dropped 4.25 feet — nearly a third of the total decline since 1996.

And that is merely the average. “I know my staff went out and re-measured a couple of wells because they couldn’t believe it,” said Lane Letourneau, a manager at the State Agriculture Department’s water resources division. “There was a 30-foot decline.”

Kansas agriculture will survive the slow draining of the aquifer — even now, less than a fifth of the state’s farmland is irrigated in any given year — but the economic impact nevertheless will be outsized. In the last federal agriculture census of Kansas, in 2007, an average acre of irrigated land produced nearly twice as many bushels of corn, two-thirds more soybeans and three-fifths more wheat than did dry land.

Farmers will take a hit as well. Raising crops without irrigation is far cheaper, but yields are far lower. Drought is a constant threat: the last two dry-land harvests were all but wiped out by poor rains.

In the end, most farmers will adapt to farming without water, said Bill Golden, an agriculture economist at Kansas State University. “The revenue losses are there,” he said. “But they’re not as tremendously significant as one might think.”

Some already are. A few miles west of Mr. Yost’s farm, Nathan Kells cut back on irrigation when his wells began faltering in the last decade, and shifted his focus to raising dairy heifers — 9,000 on that farm, and thousands more elsewhere. At about 12 gallons a day for a single cow, Mr. Kells can sustain his herd with less water than it takes to grow a single circle of corn.

“The water’s going to flow to where it’s most valuable, whether it be industry or cities or feed yards,” he said. “We said, ‘What’s the higher use of the water?’ and decided that it was the heifer operation.”

The problem, others say, is that when irrigation ends, so do the jobs and added income that sustain rural communities.

“Looking at areas of Texas where the groundwater has really dropped, those towns are just a shell of what they once were,” said Jim Butler, a hydrogeologist and senior scientist at the Kansas Geological Survey.

The villain in this story is in fact the farmers’ savior: the center-pivot irrigator, a quarter- or half-mile of pipe that traces a watery circle around a point in the middle of a field. The center pivots helped start a revolution that raised farming from hardscrabble work to a profitable business.

Since the pivots’ debut some six decades ago, the amount of irrigated cropland in Kansas has grown to nearly three million acres, from a mere 250,000 in 1950. But the pivot irrigators’ thirst for water — hundreds and sometimes thousands of gallons a minute — has sent much of the aquifer on a relentless decline. And while the big pivots have become much more efficient, a University of California study earlier this year concluded that Kansas farmers were using some of their water savings to expand irrigation or grow thirstier crops, not to reduce consumption.

A shift to growing corn, a much thirstier crop than most, has only worsened matters. Driven by demand, speculation and a government mandate to produce biofuels, the price of corn has tripled since 2002, and Kansas farmers have responded by increasing the acreage of irrigated cornfields by nearly a fifth.

At an average 14 inches per acre in a growing season, a corn crop soaks up groundwater like a sponge — in 2010, the State Agriculture Department said, enough to fill a space a mile square and nearly 2,100 feet high.

Sorghum, or milo, gets by on a third less water, Kansas State University researchers say — and it, too, is in demand by biofuel makers. As Kansas’ wells peter out, more farmers are switching to growing milo on dry land or with a comparative sprinkle of irrigation water.

But as long as there is enough water, most farmers will favor corn. “The issue that often drives this is economics,” said David W. Hyndman, who heads Michigan State University’s geological sciences department. “And as long as you’ve got corn that’s $7, then a lot of choices get made on that.”

Of the 800 acres that Ashley Yost farmed last year in Haskell County, about 70 percent was planted in corn, including roughly 125 acres in Section 35. Haskell County’s feedlots — the county is home to 415,000 head of cattle — and ethanol plants in nearby Liberal and Garden City have driven up the price of corn handsomely, he said.

But this year he will grow milo in that section, and hope that by ratcheting down the speed of his pump, he will draw less sand, even if that means less water, too. The economics of irrigation, he said, almost dictate it.

“You’ve got $20,000 of underground pipe,” he said. “You’ve got a $10,000 gas line. You’ve got a $10,000 irrigation motor. You’ve got an $89,000 pivot. And you’re going to let it sit there and rot?

“If you can pump 150 gallons, that’s 150 gallons Mother Nature is not giving us. And if you can keep a milo crop alive, you’re going to do it.”

Mr. Yost’s neighbors have met the prospect of dwindling water in starkly different ways. A brother is farming on pivot half-circles. A brother-in-law moved most of his operations to Iowa. Another farmer is suing his neighbors, accusing them of poaching water from his slice of the aquifer.

A fourth grows corn with an underground irrigation system that does not match the yields of water-wasting center-pivot rigs, but is far thriftier in terms of water use and operating costs.

For his part, Mr. Yost continues to pump. But he also allowed that the day may come when sustaining what is left of the aquifer is preferable to pumping as much as possible.

Sitting in his Ford pickup next to Section 35, he unfolded a sheet of white paper that tracked the decline of his grandfather’s well: from 1,600 gallons a minute in 1964, to 1,200 in 1975, to 750 in 1976.

When the well slumped to 500 gallons in 1991, the Yosts capped it and drilled another nearby. Its output sank, too, from 1,352 gallons to 300 today.

This year, Mr. Yost spent more than $15,000 to drill four test wells in Section 35. The best of them produced 195 gallons a minute — a warning, he said, that looking further for an isolated pocket of water would be costly and probably futile.

“We’re on the last kick,” he said. “The bulk water is gone.”

 

  • This topic was modified 3 months, 3 weeks ago by  rcbaker.
  • Mon, Jul 22, 2019 - 04:16pm

    #2

    Chris Martenson

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    Pissing away the Ogallala

Great post RCBaker.

The water issues are getting dire the world over, and many of them are 100% self-inflicted wounds.

Mining fossil aquifers to use for surface irrigation is one example.

In other cases, shifts in the weather – brought about by climate change or maybe random chance – combined with more people has led to very dire emergencies erupting with the failure of even a single year’s rains.

The list of communities struggling with drought induced water shortages is long, but it would be a lot shorter if so many people weren’t trying to live in places where the rains sometimes fail.

A hundred years ago and the 38 people living there had a tough time, but when the rains came the ground water tables were relatively intact.

Now?  Desperate people pump the groundwater dry, the stream beds dry up completely, and recharging everything takes a lot of time.

Meanwhile things are really, really tough.

Like in parts of Australia right now:

The Australian towns facing a looming ‘day zero’ crisis

July 16, 2019

Almost a dozen towns across regional New South Wales and southern Queensland are staring down the battle of a crisis that’s been dubbed “day zero”.

It describes the looming risk of running out of drinking water, as the ongoing drought continues to wreak havoc for tens of thousands of Australians in dry communities.

Local Government NSW president Linda Scott said a number of regional cities and towns are preparing for a day zero that’s less than 12 months away, with some expected to face it within three to six months.

“And in some areas, it’s probably a matter of weeks,” Ms Scott told news.com.au.

“This is very serious. Carting water in trucks for hundreds of kilometres on dirt roads is going to be the only way some councils can provide drinking water to locals.”

Tenterfield in the state’s north is at the epicentre of the crisis, with the town’s dam sitting at a precarious 32 per cent and a single bore struggling to supplement the supply.

“We pump that bore for two days and then give it a spell for a few days, to let it replenish, and in those two days, it puts roughly a day’s use back into the dam,” Tenterfield Shire Council Mayor Peter Petty said.

“I’m no mathematician but to me that’s going out the back. It won’t last.

“Our concern is that if the bore sh*ts itself, we’re buggered. It’ll be 200 days left of water and we don’t want that to happen.”

Just across the border in Queensland, Stanthorpe could reach its day zero by Christmas, with nearby Warwick at risk of running dry in 17 months’ time.

“This is the worst drought we’ve ever had in our region and it’s really biting hard,” Southern Downs Regional Council Mayor Tracy Dobie said.

“We haven’t had rain since March 2017. In the past, it rains here in summer. That hasn’t been the case for a while now.

“The issue we’re facing is the dams and creeks are all dry and so the inflows into our urban water storages have ceased.”

As bad as that sounds, and it sounds desperate, Chennai India sounds far worse:

Indian water train arrives with desperately needed relief for Chennai

July 12, 2019

New Delhi (CNN)A train carrying millions of liters of water rolled into the southern Indian city of Chennai for the first time on Friday, providing desperately needed relief to residents who have been facing an acute water shortage for the past month.

The city, Tamil Nadu’s state capital and one of India’s biggest metropolitan areas, has been crippled by the shortage brought on by poor water management, last year’s disappointing monsoon and continuous population growth.

Dozens of locals gathered at the train station to watch state officials inaugurate the “special service,” which will help to alleviate Chennai’s struggle in maintaining a steady water supply.

People cheered as the 50-wagon locomotive, decorated with flower garlands, made its way into the railway yard where 2.5 million liters of water will start being decanted.

The new train service — a regular supply that aims to bring in 10 million liters of water daily from a dam located about 360 kilometers (224 miles) away in Jolarpettai — is expected to reduce the pressure on the strained city resources.

The arrangement “is likely to continue till the water situation improves in Chennai area,” Indian Railways said in a statement.

What’s interesting is that the entire CNN article manages to fail to mention the population of Chennai.  Ten million liters of water per day sounds like a lot until you find out that Chennai has 10.6 million people living in it.

So, 1 liter of water per day by train (think of the distribution logistics!) per resident.  That will be the case “until the water situation improves.”

Think about that.  One liter of water per person, per day.

While this may be supplementing other dwindling sources, it’s not unthinkable that soon all Chennai might have would be water delivered from hundreds of kilometers away.

As I always say when people ask about places to live/move to, unless there’s more than 30 inches of rain per year there, don’t even think about it.

Water, water, water.

It’s everything when you don’t have any.

  • Mon, Jul 22, 2019 - 08:50pm

    #3
    ezlxq1949

    ezlxq1949

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    Self-inflicted aridification: we can deal with it

We have an urgent need to resurrect the hydrological cycle. Owing to poor land management practices, including tree-clearing and fallowing, we are making our own heat waves and deserts, wasting energy and human lives.

I recommend you look into the ideas of a countryman, Walter Jehne.

He’s a soil scientist and microbiologist, and has much to say on ways to cool the planet, rehydrate the soils and improve agricultural output.

To address climate change, he reckons we’re concentrating on the wrong variable. Not CO2, it should be water vapour. We can’t do anything about CO2 levels, currently approaching 415 ppm, for a thousand years. The key is water vapour, globally about 40,000 ppm; air is 4% moisture even over deserts. We must fix the land system to capture and cycle this moisture. At present globally we are aridifying and heating up the land by destructive land management practices.

Trees make a huge difference. In Canberra on a hot day, the parts of the city with good tree cover are 7°C cooler than those without. That’s a big difference and if applied nationwide would make a huge difference to our energy needs. (Of course, the vested interests would not like it at all. BAU!)

Invest 106 minutes and watch this lecture he gave in Cumbria 4 months ago:

Conversations from the Edge

I like the blurb for this video: “Walter Jehne, a soil scientist from Australia, has given humanity an incredible gift. He has given us what Buckminster Fuller called the ‘Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth.’ ”

Or watch this rather similar 2-hour one given in Vermont a year ago:

The Soil Carbon Sponge, Climate Solutions and Healthy Water Cycles

His ideas are gaining international attention. Earlier this week he took part in a teleconference with Shell. He will be speaking at the UN Conference on Climate this September. The FAO have invited him to India in the same month to address a conference on Zero Budget Natural Farming.

(Re ZBNF, this makes fascinating reading: http://www.fao.org/agroecology/detail/en/c/443712/ Wow, the FAO is strongly criticising neoliberalism and Monsanto and the harm they have done to India’s famers and farming sector! Has the tide turned?)

  • Tue, Jul 23, 2019 - 03:41am

    #4

    sand_puppy

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    Forest Help Create Their Own Rain Via Bacterial Droplet Nuclei

Due to poor hearing I wasn’t able to hear well the lectures by Walter Jehne linked above.  I found an interview transcript where he explains his ideas.

He covers many interesting ideas familiar after touring Singing Frog Farms several months ago.  A new one is that forests encourage their own rainfall and that a deforested area will not get nearly as much rain.

Q:  What’s required for precipitation to occur?

JEHNE.   …. For water vapor in the air to fall on the land as rain, a million cloud micro-droplets need to coalesce to form a raindrop that’s large and heavy enough to fall out as rain. For that to happen, we need precipitation nuclei. Only three things in nature form these precipitation nuclei: ice crystals, salts and certain bacteria. Ice is hygroscopic; it will absorb and condense water around it. Ice is very important in high latitudes and for high altitude rain, where we’ve got cold fronts. Salts in the form of sea spray are responsible for a lot of marine rain. We’ve also used salts, like silver iodide, to artificially seed clouds to induce rainfall.

But by far, the highly hydroscopic bacteria Aerobacter are the most effective nuclei in cloud chamber studies. (Aerobacter was formerly a genus, but has been reclassified and grouped into the gram negative enterobacter common in animal guts.) They govern more than half of the planet’s rainfall dynamics. These bacteria are produced in the stomata of trees in inland and tropical areas. They move up in the transpiration stream and effectively bring that water back down to Earth. Rainfall in the Amazon is largely a symbiotic, bacterially driven process. The trees are regenerating their own rainfall by the precipitation nuclei they’re putting up there!

ACRES U.S.A. So before the planet had trees, this source of rainfall wouldn’t have existed, correct?

JEHNE. Rainfall existed from ice nuclei and salt nuclei, but there wasn’t as much rain. We know that because when we’ve cleared forests from an island, its rainfall crashes. Only by reforesting that island can we now restore that rainfall. The evidence is very clear.

ACRES U.S.A. Could you give us some examples?

JEHNE. In around 1430, Portuguese marine explorers found the beautiful little island of Madeira in the Atlantic. It was covered in rainforest with many mahogany trees. The Portuguese decided to build ships out of these trees. They set up an industry on Madeira, cutting mahogany trees 2 meters in diameter. They floated the logs down the rivers and cut them up with water-driven sawmills to make their mahogany ships that allowed them to get into the spice trade in the East Indies. In no time, the Portuguese cleared Madeira of all of its mahogany forest. If you go to Madeira now, there’s no streams so there’s no way you could float a 2-meter diameter log down water or run a water-powered sawmill. It has semi-arid vegetation, like the Canary Islands. In 1495, Peter Columbus, Christopher’s son, documented that the rainfall in Madeira had collapsed enormously. Madeira is now only getting 40 percent of the rainfall that it did previously. In Australia we cleared land for agriculture up to a certain area beyond which was considered too dry. Then we installed a rabbit-proof fence. Now, 40 or 50 years later, the area that we didn’t clear gets 20 percent more rainfall than the cleared area, whereas before, it had been the reverse.

High humidity does not produce rain without droplet nuclei.

ACRES U.S.A. Living in the temperate northeast of the United States, I’ve always thought of humidity as a precursor to rain. …

JEHNE. …In the U.S. northeast you get humid hazes, and precipitation nuclei coalesce these haze micro-droplets into the much larger raindrops. That’s what happens in the Amazonian rainforest every day, where they get massive transpiration, humidity builds up and at 4:30 in the afternoon, bang, a thunderstorm brings all that moisture back down.

ACRES U.S.A. Increasingly, we have humid weather and no rain for many days.

JEHNE. Exactly. The Persian Gulf has persistent pollutant humid hazes with 80 percent relative humidity all summer, but it never rains. In the Middle East those humid hazes have become an existential health threat. Once you get temperatures above 35°C, even 40°C, with 90 percent humidity, we humans can’t perspire enough to cool ourselves. Mammals can’t survive. We’re at that threshold now. Humid haze doesn’t precipitate because water stays suspended in haze as micro-droplets.

By having taken out the precipitation nuclei so water in the atmosphere doesn’t fall as rain, we end up with a positive feedback, which accelerates warming. …

ACRES U.S.A. If we regained our rain-forming nuclei, how much water vapor would we be removing from the atmosphere?

JEHNE. In a sense, as much as we wanted to. That’s what happens in the Amazon, right? At 3 in the afternoon, the atmosphere in the Amazon might have 5 percent water by weight in it. But then, in the late afternoon, it comes back down again as rain. That rain keeps that luxuriant biosystem functioning.  The vast quantities of heat taken up by this transpiration also cool the Amazon. It’s always a nice steady 30 C there, rather than getting up to the 45 C or 50 C that we’re seeing in the Middle East [which gets similar amounts of solar radiation].

  • This reply was modified 3 months, 3 weeks ago by  sand_puppy.
  • Tue, Jul 23, 2019 - 09:20am   (Reply to #4)

    #5
    marti61

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    re: Forest Help Create Their Own Rain Via Bacterial Droplet Nuclei

Glad someone else reads Acres USA around this blog. Also might consider interviewing Wes Jackson while he is still around….

  • Wed, Jul 24, 2019 - 04:48am

    #6
    Mark Boland

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    Reply To: Pissing away our supergiant fossil water aquifer, the Ogallala

Charles Massey has written a beautiful hopfull book about how we can live regenerativly.

 

 

Mark Boland

Baton Rouge

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