If you’ve ever visited the Great Plains, you’ve seen the magnificence of modern agriculture. Irrigation pivots lumber slowly across a vast green sea of soybeans, corn, and alfalfa. The rolling landscape is occasionally punctuated by windmills, the skyscrapers of this city of crops. Despite logic saying otherwise, you get a sense that if you drove far enough, you’d reach the end of the Earth.
Unfortunately, the only thing coming to an end there is the water.
The Ogallala, the largest freshwater aquifer in the world, has been depleting at an alarming rate since the onset of irrigation in the region in the 1950s. The aquifer serves as the primary water source for all of Nebraska and sections of seven other Great Plains states. It covers 174,000 square miles of land and contains enough water to cover the entire U.S. to a depth of 15 inches.
Yet the Ogallala’s reserves have been dropping several inches each year for decades, as tens of thousands of farmers rely on it to grow the crops that feed our country. About 90% of the Ogallala’s water goes towards irrigation. Further, the aquifer recharges extremely slowly – rainfall and rivers do little to replenish it, so once it’s gone it will be gone for a very long time. In parts of Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico, this has already happened.
The Ogallala isn’t a unique case — NASA released a report last year stating that the world’s largest aquifers are being depleted rapidly, making much of the world’s population vulnerable to water scarcity.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
Advances in science and technology have led to promising improvements. The development and adoption of irrigation scheduling in the Ogallala over the last decade has led to a 15% decrease in water application and $200 million in savings for farmers.
Drip irrigation, which has doubled in the Ogallala irrigated region in the last decade, and drought resistant seeds have softened the blow of water scarcity for some farmers. Automated irrigation systems on 6 million acres of Ogallala-irrigated land have conserved water and saved farmers $7 per acre in labor costs.
But we can’t stop there. New precision ag technology will be critical in saving the Ogallala and other aquifers. HydroBio’s software empowers farmers to save water and money, by providing them with irrigation prescriptions based on calculations from satellite imagery.
As Charles Fishman writes in his book The Big Thirst, “Many civilizations have been crippled or destroyed by an inability to understand water or manage it. We have a huge advantage over the generations of people who have come before us, because we can understand water and we can use it smartly.” Exciting advances in precision agriculture are our society’s greatest tool for saving our dwindling water resources.