AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Parched for months, fired by yet another unforgiving heatwave, piled with wind-scattered topsoil and ash, the hard-packed clay of the High Plains resembled less a wide open collection of prairies in July than it did a vast earthenware ashtray. Even when sporadic storm systems flooded the occasional creek or roadway, the water only evaporated or drained into the nearest craggy riverbed. 

The drought, having already surpassed decade-long records in Texas, is likely to worsen. According to the National Weather Service, nearly the entire state is expected to be experiencing drought conditions by the end of October. Producers in the Texas Panhandle have struggled with the impact on their crop output, as well as the lack of resources available for livestock, even when their yields haven’t been ravaged by wildfires.

It’s a hard year, and far from over. 

In decades past, the High Plains may have been reassured by the steady presence of the Ogallala Aquifer beneath the surface, able to nurture, produce and slake the thirst of the region’s cities. Still, its lifespan – and the confidence it provides – is waning. 

Even though Ogallala can recharge, it’s a slow process. Research from sources such as the United States Geological Survey shows that withdrawals from its water supply far outpace that rate. According to researchers from Stanford University, West Texas A&M University, and others, up to 40% of Ogallala will be unable to support irrigated crop production within the next 80 years. Other studies have even more dire news, projecting that the entire aquifer will be 70% depleted within the next 50 years. 

It isn’t a matter of if, according to researchers, but when the communities supported by Ogallala will need to adjust away from that reliance. In fact, it’s a matter of ‘now.’ Yet, after decades of abundance that has woven the aquifer into the fabric of life on the High Plains, that idea can be hard to fathom. 

When is Ogallala going to die? After that, what? 

The death of Ogallala and the day-to-day

According to the High Plains Water District, Ogallala spans 174,000 square miles and underlies eight states: Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and South Dakota. 

Generally in the Texas Panhandle, the saturated thickness – or the distance from the top of the water table to the base of the aquifer – reaches up to a few hundred feet. However, the average is steadily dropping. In Castro County in 2022, the High Plains Water District reported Ogallala’s saturated thickness to be around 53 feet; in the last 10 years, Castro County has lost nearly 19 feet. Since 2021, the 16-county district has lost an average of -0.63 feet. 

As for where the water goes, over 90% of Ogallala’s supply is used for irrigated agriculture and livestock production, though it also contributes to municipal water systems and other industries. 

The aquifer is a finite resource as the region supplies its industries’ and communities’ daily needs. The HPWD noted that in an average year, Ogallala regains around half of an inch of water. That recharging mostly happens through playa lakes, shallow dips in prairies or plains where rainwater can collect. 

A half-inch isn’t a lot of water to begin with, but in years of drought, Ogallala likely won’t even regain that much. HPWD detailed that in 2021, the Amarillo area (Potter and Randall Counties) was below its average precipitation levels by about -5.33 inches. 2022 hasn’t offered the chance to make up the deficit, but rather has presented the largest extent of drought conditions for the state of Texas since 2012. 

Further, years of record-breaking drought and heat are only becoming more common. As noted by the 2020 study involving WT researchers, declining groundwater levels are likely even with the best water conservation practices. While efforts to conserve water might seem to slow the decline of Ogallala, those efforts will also be challenged – and possibly even negated – by climate change warming temperatures, making already-common periods of drought longer and harsher. 

“Climate change could significantly increase the rate of decline,” Added another study from the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, “In a scenario where precipitation falls by 25% and the number of degree days above 96°F doubles, and if groundwater use is unconstrained, groundwater depletion would increase 50% compared to current rates.”

While researchers said that calculating the exact timeframe of Ogallala’s depletion is challenging, in part because of its size, they can estimate which regions impacted by Ogallala will dry out first by taking into account the different saturated thicknesses and historical declines in each area. Given the rate of water usage and the saturated thickness averages, while the entirety of Ogallala may see a 70% decrease within the next 50 years, water will likely run out much more quickly across places like the High Plains. By some estimates, including from the Department of Homeland Security, some of the aquifer’s dependent counties were projected to have less than 25 years left of available groundwater. 

In 2015, the DHS Office of Cyber and Infrastructure Analysis produced a report on the risk to the High Plains Aquifer system, which primarily consists of Ogallala and smaller connected aquifers, and its impacts on infrastructure and the economy at local and national levels. The key findings of that report included: 

  • Declining water levels mean increased farm operations costs. 
    • Every $1,000 increase in utility expenditures corresponds to a farm operation being 2.62% more likely to close or exit the industry. 
  • Exhaustion of groundwater supplies could cause farmers to switch to dryland farming, which could impact state GDP growth.
    • Reduced irrigated acreages will impact the amount of produce from industries such as agriculture. Less supply may lead to increased demand and rising product costs, compounded with less disposable income on the side of people in impacted industries. 
  • Multiple critical infrastructure Sectors will be most affected by resource risk and economic impacts, such as;
    • Food and Agriculture 
    • Water and Wastewater Systems
    • Chemical (ethanol production)
    • Energy (ethanol as a transportation fuel) 

Agriculture costs and producers

As noted by DHS, the High Plains accounts for a quarter of the nation’s agricultural production. With climate change already expected to continue reducing dryland yields for corn, sorghum, soy, and winter wheat, those reduced yields are expected to take even more significant hits as irrigated farming becomes less reliable. Decreased yields and increased year-to-year uncertainty could not only push more people away from the agriculture industry but raise costs and demand for produce. 

Despite the DHS report from 2015 focusing on other areas of Ogallala, its conclusions have already started to manifest in the High Plains as of 2022. Drought has encouraged some producers to supplement their income using cattle, but the input costs for both livestock production and crop-focused production have skyrocketed. Those prices have already prompted a decrease in the number of producers keeping cattle and the size of their herds, as well as the number of crops they’re able to produce either because of production costs or a lack of water. 

“They’re putting in twice the risk for the same return that they normally do,” said Teddie Whitefield, a manager for Patton Custom Fertilizer regarding working with farmers amid the latest drought in a July interview with “They’re the backbone of the Panhandle.”

Regionally and nationally, these obstacles to crop and livestock production will mean an increase in costs at the grocery store in the long term. That projection is an even more bitter pill to swallow, as rising inflation in 2022 has already seen costs for meat, fish, eggs, and dairy significantly burdening consumers

However, the consequences will reach far beyond a cart of groceries, especially for the people living in the High Plains, with impacts including the gas pump and the kitchen sink. 

Energy costs and production

As the day-to-day costs of energy have continued to rise and the nation works to bolster its domestic fuel production amid its diverse fuel energy portfolio, the depletion of Ogallala is likely to further burden producers and consumers. Water is a necessary resource for both the chemical and energy sectors; In Texas, the TWDB projected that the oil and gas industry will use around 325,000 acre-feet of water per year from 2020 through about 2060, with most of that water being used for fracking. 

Much like the impact on the agricultural industry, a lack of groundwater will impact the production of oil and gas. At the same time, extreme temperatures becoming more common due to climate change demonstrably leads to a higher demand for energy. With those aspects together, fuel supplies seem poised to shrink while prices grow. 

Water for communities

Alongside national and regional issues, communities dependent on Ogallala may also see the impacts of its end as closely as the faucets in their homes. As noted in the TWDB’s 2019 water use summary, around 19% of the groundwater in Texas is used for municipal purposes.

Across the High Plains, communities and individual homes are connected to Ogallala to provide for day-to-day plumbing. For instance, according to the most recent reports from the City of Amarillo, 36% of its water supply is made up of groundwater from the aquifer system. 

As noted by the DHS, communities that will be impacted by the aquifer’s depletion first – such as those across the High Plains – face increasing expenses associated with falling groundwater levels. Those costs include lifting water from deeper underground, as well as those associated with extending or replacing failing groundwater wells. When those dry, and surface water sources are not consistently reliable, those costs could transfer to importing water or other supply methods. 

Moving forward

Altogether, there is no aspect of life of the High Plains that will not be impacted by the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer and its connected system. Not only that, but those effects have already been illustrated in the combined struggles of the region’s producers and consumers to navigate tumultuous inflation and long-term drought. 

a center pivot irrigation system in a corn field

However, the end or limiting of irrigated agriculture on the High Plains, fueled by Ogallala, does not need to mean the end of everything. According to a 2019 study by researchers from Kansas State University, irrigated agriculture isn’t a dealbreaker for county-level development and life on the High Plains. 

“This suggests,” said researchers, “that policymakers may employ a range of strategies for managing irrigation withdrawals from the Ogallala Aquifer without harming the well-being of area residents.”

Although it was once the savior of the High Plains in the face of Dust Bowl conditions and has nurtured decades of booming prosperity, Ogallala will soon have little or nothing more to give; and the region, the nation, now faces the decision of how to move forward within the next generation.