The Great Midwestern Overdraft

midwest landscape

The last 10 years have given rise to considerable consternation as to future water availability in the Western and Midwestern United States. Due to climate change as well as cyclical precipitation patterns, the rains have seemingly disappeared across these regions and the limitless supply of water we enjoyed over the past two centuries has become an anachronism of the past.

Individuals across the government, business, and non-profit worlds alike have developed plans geared towards reducing water demand while increasing future supply — Poseidon’s Carlsbad SWRO plant and California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management being perhaps the two most notable examples in the West. Few deny that the manner in which these regions use water today will drive the future viability of the regions and yet, by virtue of the massive infrastructure projects built following World War II, only one of these regions — the West — is positioned to adjust to a new, drought-like, normal. The Midwest, home of the Dust Bowl, historically known as the “Great American Desert,” and vast over-pumper of the great Ogallala Aquifer, has yet to adopt many of the lessons learned by Western counterparts in managing water supplies.

As a brief but important historical interlude, the Midwest first developed into an agricultural haven during the times of Manifest Destiny, as Congress’ Homestead Act and the Bureau of Reclamation distributed 40 acres of fertile land and cheap water, respectively, to aspiring entrepreneurs. Upon arrival, many of these optimistic Homesteaders found the land to be poor, the topsoil thin, and an ever-present need to irrigate the land in order to produce a steady crop. Over time a greater and greater number of individuals moved to the region — leading to an over-allocation of surface water resources and a need for increased numbers of irrigation projects that were fast becoming uneconomical (Note: for a great history of water west of the Mississippi, the 1986 book “Cadillac Desert” and its learnings remains surprisingly prescient today). As the population of this agricultural breadbasket continued to grow, surface water supplies became more stressed — and poor water management policies led in part to the outsized impact that the 1920s-drought had on the region.

The solution to this Midwestern crisis in the mid-20th century was not, unfortunately, to develop more sustainable water usage plans. Instead, new advances in drilling and pumping technology led farmers, irrigation districts, and municipal utilities to begin municipal-scale groundwater pumping programs in order to mitigate the impacts of surface water losses due to drought. For several decades, this ‘new’ water supply gave rise to an economy built upon some of the largest agricultural conglomerates that the world has ever seen. The Ogallala Aquifer (the largest freshwater aquifer in the world) was both the bounty that these individuals needed and the victim of these individuals’ lack of a coordinated management plan. Today, the Ogallala Aquifer has been depleted by approximately 300 ft in some areas, with losses between 2001 and 2011 equaling approximately 1/3 of the total losses from the entire 20th century. These groundwater resources, unlike the ocean water resources that the West enjoys, are not renewable, and continued over-extraction of this water supply is, at best, short-sighted.

Last year, if one were so inclined to read into Kansas water policy, two major events occurred signaling a shift in the status quo of Midwestern water supplies. First, Southwestern Kansas experienced the worst fires in modern recorded history in May 2017, with the Starbuck fire consuming over 662,000 acres of agricultural land across 23 counties, destroying the economic livelihoods of countless farmers, and permanently altering the landscape of the region. While these fires were, of course, not caused by the overdraft of the Ogallala Aquifer (in fact it was a downed power line), their ferocity signifies a change in the way in which we have to come to manage our land, and the consequences that can emerge following dry spells combined with over-allocated water resources.

Michele Steinberg of the National Fire Protection Association stated that, “Lack of mutual aid… and access to roads and water played a role.” Second, outgoing Gov. Sam Brownback held a state-wide ‘Water Tour’. Throughout this tour, Brownback spoke with constituents on how best to balance the management of water resources with the economic and cultural considerations that come from a conservative, agricultural state. One aspect of this tour was also to promote the Local Enhanced Management Area (LEMA) tool created by Kansas lawmakers in 2012 that saw a 35 percent decrease in water usage by participating farmers in just four years. Here, a voluntary (carrot) mechanism promoted by the government developed a means to reduce water usage without any compulsory (stick) penalties.

What resulted from these fires and this tour?

First, FEMA, the Department of Agriculture, and private insurance companies paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to farmers in order to compensate individuals/companies for their lost income and/or homes. President Donald Trump issued a Federal Disaster declaration, allowing impacted individuals to seek funds to help offset the economic hardships that have followed. Since the fires have died down, there has been little to no press on the follow-up to this disaster. A couple human interest pieces followed by silence. No discussions of improving water availability or disaster planning, no editorials on more resilient ground cover throughout the state, just crickets.

Secondly, Brownback’s tour of the state has led to little tangible policy to date other than a few press releases and speeches. While the LEMA tool has proven effective in Kansas, I am unable to find any follow up information regarding efforts or campaigns geared towards increasing the prevalence of these organizations in Kansas since August 2017. In fact, recent calls to the state’s Department of Environment resulted in a response detailing how the state has little understanding of how much money is being spent on water infrastructure every year, including drinking water, wastewater, storm water management, etc. Meanwhile, as the governorship transitioned from Brownback to Jeff Colyer, the Ogallala aquifer continues to decline in water supply by 5 in. every year. Kansas’s great achievement in reducing the speed at which the Ogallala declines remains insufficient — it is truly a manifestation of every economics undergraduate introductory lesson to the Tragedy of the Commons.

So, what can the Midwest do? How can the Midwest begin to come to terms with its own reality and understand that, unlike the West, it does not have a limitless supply of ocean water available along its borders? It is clear that, unlike during the times of the Dust Bowl, when a ‘limitless’ groundwater supply was discovered to supplement surface water sources, no such additional resource exists. Instead, the Midwest is entering into a timeframe in which Day 0 is fast approaching, a time when all emergency technology deployment and sustainable groundwater management plans will no longer be sufficient. Thus, we are entering into a time during which we must, like my old coach used to say, act with a hell of a lot more hustle and urgency.

What we need now is for business leaders and policymakers in this region to begin working together not to regulate, but to manage groundwater resources. While many in the Midwest scoff at the environmental ideals of California, the latter state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is an excellent example of what strong, centralized leadership can do to optimize groundwater resources. Our policymakers’ goal must be to protect and represent American citizens — they are failing to do so if they fail to protect the water supplies of future generations. In addition, local communities must begin to develop greater tracking of extant groundwater wells, both permitted and off-grid, in order to better understand how withdrawals are shaping the aquifer and the region writ large. Business leaders must begin to work together to manage water usage — with farmers transitioning away from water intensive crops such as soy in favor or more drought-resistant crops and local manufacturing beginning to implement an internal price of water. In the end, true groundwater management will require a holistic approach to manage resources across all stakeholders, leading to a modern “Coasian equilibrium”.

What we are experiencing today in the Midwest is nothing new — academic books and papers have discussed the unsustainable groundwater withdrawals of the Ogallala for decades. But what is different is that this impending water crisis continues to be met with little resistance. The Midwest has, on an institutional level, done very little. If we hope to enjoy a region of the future that continues to thrive on agriculture, we better begin planning for that future. If we don’t, we are likely to wake up to a Midwest that bears little resemblance to the land that many, including myself, grew up to enjoy. 

Michael Warady is a project manager at aquaTECTURE LLC, a multi-strategy firm focused on water. Warady is responsible for investing growth-stage capital into proprietary water treatment technologies and the development of large-scale water infrastructure projects. He is also a board member of the International Desalination Association Young Leaders Program.

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