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The last drop

This could change the American economy for centuries

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.

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