The history of the Ogallala Aquifer spans millennia, with most studies indicating origins in the early Pliocene epoch (2.58 million to 5.33 million years ago). Its formation was the result of a tumultuous period of tectonic activity, responsible for the landscape of our present day southern Rocky Mountains. When the last ice age began its thaw, rivers of ice and snow melt cut their way east from the mountain highlands, carrying with them the eroded sedimentary rock that would eventually fill the ancient paleo-valleys and cover the uplifts, with highly permeable detritus.
Because the Ogallala Aquifer is made up of other smaller formations, most notably the Brule and Arikaree, it’s hard to pinpoint any specifics of its discovery by mankind. The fact that it predates humanity while encompassing such a large swath of North America, makes it difficult to say who discovered it, or when. Asking who and when is similar to asking the same questions of the Atlantic Ocean.
However, the official recorded discovery of the Ogallala Aquifer can be attributed to N.H. Darton of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in the 1890s, near Ogallala, Nebraska. You might wonder how the Dust Bowl could have occurred some 40 years later, with such a huge volume of water was just beneath the farmers’ boots. For the longest time, the aquifer’s contents were only able to be drawn up by windmill pumping. In fact, the Nebraska Agriculture Extension Service wrote in 1928 that underground water supplies were abundant, but that they lacked the technology necessary to bring it to the surface for dispersal. Windmill pumps were inefficient for large-scale irrigation. They could only render a few gallons per minute.
It’s been said that war is the mother of invention, and in the case of irrigation technology, that’s true. Before World War II, most irrigation with groundwater was accomplished by windmill or with the occasional small and overly-expensive pump, but after the war that changed. Automobile companies expanded rapidly because of the war effort, and when the war ended they had to deal with excesses of all types: labor, materials, technology, factory space, and supplies. Because of the glut of supplies, the prices came down and manufacturers had to find new markets to sustain their production levels. Auto engines were then adapted across industry lines, so that they finally ended up as pumping engines across Ogallala county. These high-volume mechanical pumps became the method of extraction that the Nebraska Ag Extension Service was looking for 20 years prior.
In those early years of groundwater irrigation, water was dispersed through open furrows. Sprinkler systems were still behind the technology and cost curves of that time. But after their invention in 1949, sprinklers started the slow process of being improved, implemented, and then widely accepted, beginning in Nebraska. Today’s center pivot sprinkler models are ideal for the Great Plains, as they provide uniform water distribution onto cropland. But these innovations also come with their own problems, particularly in areas with high temperatures and increased winds. From the 1950s to the mid-70s, USGS estimates are that withdrawals increased 500%.
There are many factors leading to the present situation of our rapidly diminishing aquifer. Most are related to modernization, high crop production, globalization, droughts, and increasing populations on the Plains and around the world. The simple fact is that technology has made it easier to pump greater volumes of groundwater for food and fiber production. As we’ve continually been in prolonged states of drought over the last 20 years, more and more groundwater is needed to supplement and maintain thirstier crops like corn and alfalfa. Add to this the development of expanding municipalities and increasing industrial demands on the aquifer, and it’s now being depleted at rates never before seen.
Groundwater is becoming exhausted in some areas on the Ogallala. In these overstressed regions, water is being withdrawn at rates from 4 to 6 feet per year, while only being replenished at a rate of half an inch or less per year. To put a picture with those stats, imagine in 1975 that the flow of the Colorado River was being drawn from the aquifer. Currently, more like 18 times the volume of the Colorado River are being pumped from our aquifer each year! Many localities are are in real danger of seeing the Ogallala depleted within our lifetime.
The implications of Ogallala Aquifer depletion are too widespread to describe in one page of our website. Clearly, the Great Plains economy depends on a vibrant agriculture, as does a large segment of the United States’ annual GDP. But agriculture or an economy that exhausts our aquifer spells a meager and unsustainable future for both human and natural communities. To steward our Ogallala Aquifer will require grassroots actions demonstrating that the water we use isn’t ours alone, but that it also belongs to our neighbors, and to the generations to come.