Drought and groundwater in the Great Plains of North America

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

09 April 2014 See comments (10)

house in the desert
GREAT PLANS: Abandoned house in the desert.

People quickly forget when it comes to ‘extreme weather events’. This was one of the main conclusions of the 2014 Great Plains Symposium in Lincoln, Nebraska last week. Forgetting about much more severe droughts of both the near and more distant past, many politicians were quick to label the 2012-13 drought in the farming belt of US Mid-West as the worst in history and to blame climate change for it.

But as research presented at the symposium showed, drought is a normal part of the climate in the Great Plains. And in the past these droughts were much more severe than the most recent one. It should not be too difficult to find information on an at-least-as severe drought in the region in the 1950, and the even longer dry spell of the 1930s, known as the ‘Dust Bowl’ when more than 5,000 Americans died.

Looking even further back (at research by Professor Sherilyn Fritz of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln), the Dust Bowl period was only slightly above the average degree of dryness of the last 2,000 years (you have to read the chart from right to left; the zero-point on the horizontal axis is for the year 1950).

800 years ago, during the Medieval warm period, significant parts of the Great Plains were a sand desert with wandering high dunes (100 metres and more) driven by the winds. (Paul Hanson, Associate Director of the School of natural Resources at University of Nebraska-Lincoln).

Plain dunes were also active during mega-droughts 2,500 years and 4,000 years ago.

With facts like these in mind, Martin Hoerling, research meteorologist in the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and his team took an in-depth-look at the last drought in a study published in 2013 “An Interpretation of the Origins of the 2012 Central Great Plains Drought (pdf document)”. It concluded that “neither ocean states nor human-induced climate change appeared to play significant roles in causing severe rainfall deficits over the major corn producing regions of central Great Plains” but “resulted mostly from natural variations in weather”. Since the study was contradicting earlier comments from very high-level politicians, the result of the NOAA study were quickly criticised as needlessly confusing.

So, what was special about the 2012 drought in the Great Plains?

In my post from August 2012 about the US drought crisis, I formulated the hypothesis that the recent drought had a more severe impact because of the massive overuse of fossil groundwater from the Ogallala aquifer, originally underlying some 35% of the Great Plains. Using its water for irrigation and municipal supply during decades of above-average humidity in the region (e.g., compared to the periods of prolonged drought several hundred years ago) has meanwhile educed Ogallala freshwater availability by some 50%.

Interestingly enough, land values reflect access to Ogallala water (pdf document): the premium (one form of natural capital) was at some USD 30 billion in the early seventies; by 2002, after extraction of some 250 km3 of water, the premium had decreased to 12 billion. This values one cubic metre of extracted water at some US Cents 5-10.

Main speakers at the symposium this month stressed one learning from history: there can be little doubt that decade-long droughts will happen again in the Great Plains, independently of human influence on climate.

Two conclusions from this, for discussion:

- Once natural cycles bring back truly severe drought similar to the one during the Medieval warm period, the value of water in the Ogallala – if some is left – will be much higher than the few cents it its apparently worth today. Water extracted from the underground aquifers during times of relative abundance of surface water will be painfully lacking once times get really tough again.

- This means people of the Great Plains will have to address water management (supply, use of ever scarcer water for what is really needed, efficiency of use) in a strategic and comprehensive manner today; addressing climate change alone will not solve the huge water risk for a region that has become an important bread basket for the world. Strict and long-term oriented water management in this and many regions is no longer something “nice-to-have”, but a must if the concept of sustainability beyond environmental protection is taken seriously.

  1. robert albers @ group 17

    09 Apr 2014 - 15:58 (GMT)

    As the future unfolds, one source of water might be that produced as a byproduct of fuel cell technology. Of course, this would have to be managed in order to be available, and that might be the "fly in the ointment" as it were. However, if industrial and commercial and municipal usage of fuel cells increases, the water from them might be a significant contributor to the overall supply of fresh water.

  2. RAMON LLAMAS @ water observatory. Botin Foundation.Spain

    15 Apr 2014 - 13:52 (GMT)

    I would be grateful if you can explain how the decrease of the Ogallala aqufer has been evaluated in irder to know that the available groundwater has been reduced 50%.
    Also it would be useful a more clear explanation of the premium concept that has decreased from 30 billion to 12 billion.
    How has been calcukated the value of extracted water UScents 5-10.?
    Also it would be useful a link to the Great Plains Symposium.

  3. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestlé

    17 Apr 2014 - 18:04 (GMT)

    Dear Ramón, thanks for the comment and the questions. I think the sources of all the data mentioned are stated as embedded link. But looking at my blog pages I realise that these embedded links are not sufficiently highlighted; my apologies, we will try to solve this.
    In the meantime let me list the embedded sources in text form:
    The data on the 50% reduction in water in the Ogallala aquifer comes from Scientific American:
    The premium concept and estimates are from Richard Hornbeck from Harvard University (he made a brilliant presentation in Lincoln):
    And if you would like to know more about the event and the university, go to:
    Best regards, Peter

  4. Renee Martin-Nagle @ Environmental Law Institute

    15 Apr 2014 - 14:25 (GMT)

    Thank you for raising the issue of fossil aquifers such as the Ogallala. Forming the largest portion of the Great Plains Aquifer System, the Ogallala lies under eight states in the US -- South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. Until recent technology revealed their presence, the waters in fossil aquifers had lain untouched for thousands and even million of years. Observing how this liquid treasure trove is utilized provides an interesting insight into human nature and should serve to influence future practices. The Ogallala contains 30% of US groundwater, and its discovery helped transform the Dust Bowl into the Farm Belt. The estimate cited above that half of the water has already been withdrawn seems a little high, but the perceived consequences of that rate of abstraction coincide with estimates that the waters will run dry in 20 years or so, with obvious and devastating impacts to agricultural output. The Ogallala is not the only fossil aquifer in serious overdraft. The North China Plain Aquifer, whose fossil waters also supports massive and vital agricultural production, has likewise experienced a rapid and irreversible drop in its water table.

    To date, the public and the private sectors have not collaborated effectively to manage fossil waters in a sustainable fashion. With populations booming and water scarcity looming, careful and prudent management of our terrestrial water banks might lead us to evolve from past practices and implement strategies that will produce outcomes different from those being faced by the Ogallala and North China Plain aquifers. Recognizing the problem is the first step toward its resolution.

  5. Hazirova @ Sklusive

    16 Apr 2014 - 11:54 (GMT)

    Quand j ai vu votre déclaration sur les droits sur l'eau, je suis restée choquée. Vous, vous êtes bien au chaud, dans votre canapé très cher, dans votre villa hors de prix, votre famille a toujours de quoi manger et donc vous vous estimez tout puissant.....l'argent ne fait pas tout monsieur, le bon sens vous manque cruellement. Vous pensez qu'a l'argent et vous oubliez que vous et vos actionnaires vous êtes pas seuls au monde. Au lieu de parler des naissances contrôlés dans les pays de tiers monde, vous voulez faire de l'eau votre business. Au lieu de dire au pape de changer la position sur les préservatif et la pilule et contrôler les naissances en Afrique, Inde, etc...vous vous attaquez à un droit de BASE.......vous ne cherchez pas à régler le problème, vous cherchez à gagner de l'argent sur le dos des plus pauvres....et cela, les gens n'accepteront jamais et j'espère qu'ils vous le feront sentir!!!!

  6. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestlé

    22 Apr 2014 - 10:10 (GMT)

    @ Hazirova Dear Ms Hazirova, thanks for visiting my blog to read my views and ideas on water. The post you comment on does not mention water as a human right, but you may have seen my position on it in earlier texts posted here: the water you need for survival (20-50 litres per person and day) as a human right should be free of charge for those who cannot afford; however, water to fill a pool and to wash a car, for instance, should not be free but paid for to cover all costs. You find it in several places here, for example: https://www.water-challenge.com/posts/Water-is-a-human-right-–-but-not-a-free-good.aspx . The issue is important and has been discussed often and in numerous places; there are many different views expressed and I am not clear what your own views are, what exactly you find shocking about my position. It would be great if you could tell me and my readers what exactly you have in mind so we can discuss it. Regards, Peter Brabeck.

  7. Florence @ Water

    21 Jul 2014 - 23:01 (GMT)

    Dear Sir,
    I have just had the opportunity to discuss this with a friend who linked a petition against Nestle' based on your supposed statement that people do not have a right to water. Having then read an article about the interview when you made this statement, I was not surprised to see that it had been taken out of context, as usual.
    As a professional in the water sector (I cannot indicate the company I work for, though) I do agree with your statement that we do not value water they way we should and we end up wasting it.
    Also, I do agree that while having sufficient water for our needs is a human right, we do no have the right to all the water that exists.
    Another concept that some people cannot accept, is that a commercial company has got the right to ask for an abstraction permit which, if managed properly, will not derogate other sources.
    I see a lot of self-serving bias against Nestle' (and other companies) from organisations that live out of charitable donations and therefore need "causes celebres" to survive. I have come to mistrust all of them, especially when they do not even know what they are talking about.

  8. Aaron @ none

    24 Apr 2014 - 06:18 (GMT)

    Hi Peter -- Oklahoma still has the sand dunes in the northwestern parts, so I think some of the ecological legacy you present here remains. I would wish to see a time chart that presents the water levels of the aquifer, the annual rainfall levels, and other relevant data sets for a rapid visual inspection of this topic. Maybe after the data has been collected, it could be examined more closely to see if this is true in a linear regression. It seems like that the scientists are treating climate change (whatever variable they are using) as orthogonal to the aquifer's use. Has this been done?

  9. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestlé

    24 Apr 2014 - 15:39 (GMT)

    @ Aaron Dear Aaron, many thanks for the comment and the question. You may find most of the information you are looking for in the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report looking at the 2012 drought in a historical perspective: http://www.drought.gov/media/pgfiles/2012-Drought-Interpretation-final.web-041013_V4.0.pdf .
    There is however, at least as far as I know, no ‘standardised’ measurement of groundwater levels across the Great Plains, only local ones, and some rough estimates of total volumes withdrawn and remaining (see the sources mentioned in my post). But I encourage you to also get in touch with University of Nebraska. Regards, Peter

  10. Chris @ Self employed

    19 Apr 2015 - 00:24 (GMT)

    I've got a problem with the glib skimming over of the Dust Bowl phenomenon. Every schoolboy of my generation knows the Dust Bowl was created when farmers ploughed up the prairie on a massive scale to grow crops; and, basically, with no natural vegitation to keep things stable, the topsoil blew away in the wind.

    Where there had been natural, stable prairie which had existed for who knows how many thousand years, in a few short years it was turned into a MAN MADE desert.

    It would be really useful if the people who write blogs like this didn't have such a seeming propensity to make excuses for the rampant destruction of the planet that most human beings are engaged in.

Blog commenting form