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The Great Plains’ Looming Water Crisis

Depletion of a giant aquifer threatens vital U.S. farmland
Irrigation of wheat fields north of Denver.

Irrigation of wheat fields north of Denver.

Photographer: De Agostini/Getty Images

Farming in the northeast corner of Colorado used to be simple: plant corn and watch it grow, irrigated by the massive Ogallala aquifer. Today the sprinklers at Marvin Pletcher’s farm in Yuma County, about 120 miles from Denver, put out half as much water as a decade ago, and he keeps them low to the ground to prevent evaporation. Half of Pletcher’s 1,300 acres are planted with wheat, sorghum, sunflowers, and pinto beans—crops that are less thirsty than corn, but also less profitable. “I have four wells in operation. In 10 years I’ll be lucky if I have one,” says the fourth-generation farmer. “We’re all drinking from the same bowl of water here, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

The Ogallala aquifer lies under eight states from South Dakota to Texas. If it were above ground, its 174,000-square-mile surface area would be nearly double all five Great Lakes. About one-fifth of all U.S. cattle, corn, cotton, and wheat depend on the Ogallala. Without it, meat prices would rise, farm exports fall, and rural communities wither, says Bill Lapp, a former chief economist for ConAgra Foods and the Omaha-based president of Advanced Economic Solutions, an agriculture consultant.