National Geographic : 2016 Aug
92 national geographic • August 2016 The well, wide enough to fall into, taps into the Ogallala aquifer, the immense underground freshwater basin that makes modern life pos- sible in the dry states of Middle America. We have come to assess the aquifer’s health. The weighted tip hits the water at 195 feet, a foot lower than a year ago. Dropping at this pace, it is nearing the end of its life. “Already this well does not have enough water left to irrigate for an entire summer,” Wilson says. It is three days into January, and we are alone on an endlessly flat expanse surrounded by 360 degrees of pale blue horizon, not a cloud, not a tree in sight. We are 4,000 feet above sea level, the reason this is called the High Plains. The incessant wind that blew topsoil from the Dust Bowl east to the Atlantic Ocean and onto the decks of ships during the 1930s is unseasonably calm, although Wilson’s SUV is packed to the roof with gear for every possible weather ca- lamity. On the field behind us, the spindly steel skeleton of a center-pivot irrigation sprinkler stretches out over brown earth like a giant sci-fi insect, dormant until spring. Wilson, who is 47 with a lean, athletic build, is the water-data manager for the Kansas Geo- logical Survey and part of a team that travels to western Kansas every winter to document By Laura Parker Photographs by Randy Olson how rapidly this aquifer is disappearing. The water beneath our feet has been accumulating in porous rock for about 15,000 years, before the end of the last ice age. For the past 60 years, the Ogallala has been pumped out faster than raindrops and snowmelt can seep back into the ground to replenish it, thanks largely to irri- gation machinery like the one sleeping near- by. As a result, in parts of western Kansas, the aquifer has declined by more than 60 percent during that period. In some parts, it is already ‘ Whoa,’ yells Brownie Wilson, as the steel measuring tape I am feeding down the throat of an irrigation well on the Kansas prairie gets away from me and unspools rapidly into the depths below.