I found a recent article in the New York Times, “An Underground Pool Drying Up,” both compelling and interesting on several levels. For one, the article offers a sobering look at the Ogallala aquifer and the severe decline it has suffered in recent decades, dropping to levels in some locations that no longer support adequate irrigation. The author, Michael Wines, depicts the situation as a “catastrophe decades in the making.” And he reports that it is a situation that cannot be solved or reversed for centuries, assuming that austere measurements are established to conserve the resource.
Wines detailed the plight of Southern Plains farmers—from Kansas down through Oklahoma, and into the Texas Panhandle. Some have switched crops—from a more moisture dependent corn to a more drought tolerant milo, for instance. Others have reduced irrigated acreage, watering half-pivot circles instead of entire spans. Some changed to operations that do not require irrigation.
Two years of drought and another in the making exacerbates a problem that has been developing for several decades. Water districts have imposed restrictions on water use and some now require well monitors. Lawsuits have been pursued—against agencies as well as individuals charged with using more than their share of water.
The situation can only get worse. If climate change is real—and I don’t intend to step willingly into that briar patch—water resources may become even more valuable and more litigious as the resource becomes more scarce. The author offers no immediate remedies, as none are available. Conservation, however, must be part of any solution, as are more efficient irrigation systems and more water-efficient varieties. Other solutions must be considered.
And that brings me to the other compelling aspect of this story. Readers’ comments published at the end of the article did offer solutions, and considerable blame. The gist is that large “corporate” farms are the culprits and by reverting back to smaller acreage farms—1950s era agriculture, one presumes—farmers will conserve water, produce more food per acre, and feed the population.
Reliance on large acreage crops—corn and soybeans mostly—also must be curtailed. And high fructose corn syrup once again takes a few punches, as does grain for ethanol.
Other readers contend that population control might be necessary and that 100 years of technology and scientific achievements be reversed.
Of particular interest were the comments proposing that food be grown within a 50-mile radius of where it will be consumed—all on small farms—organic, of course—so that shipping from long distances will no longer be necessary.
Ah, if only that were feasible. I’m wondering where the land will come from. What speculator will turn loose 100 acres within a 50-mile radius of Dallas, Texas, for instance, at a price conducive to earning a living growing vegetables? And who will work these small oases of agriculture within sight of the city’s sky scrapers? Farmers now can’t find people to pick peppers for pay above minimum wage.
And what about clothing? Are we going to bring back all the cotton mills from the Caribbean, China, and other places where people work for a fraction of what an American would get for the same task? Can we expect a return of cobblers, milliners, and tinkers?
And, even with all those regressive agriculture practices, no one offered any suggestions on how those new farmers would grow tomatoes without water. Or raise free-range chickens, or grass-fed beef or pen-free swine without watering them or feeding them anything but slop.
Yes, we need concerted efforts to figure out how to use our water more efficiently. We need better varieties, better cropping systems more efficient irrigation. But going back in time is not the answer. We’ve been there. It was hard work with scant reward. We have to embrace technology, not abandon it.