Water Woes In 2022
Short term push for profits trump long term sustainability every time it seems any more.
One myth about aquifer decline is that conservative rural farmers are solely to blame for this self-destructive loss. This is not true. Instead, farmers’ choices to continue pumping groundwater reflect a wider system of finance, profiteering, and resource consumption. Many independent Plains farmers scrape by, break even, or lose money to grow irrigated crops. Depending on yearly market fluctuations, the earnings from corn, alfalfa, and wheat may not cover the costs of production. These losses are papered over by federal farm subsidies, crop insurance programs, and bank loans, aid that compels farmers to double down on wasteful practices. To make up losses, some farmers cultivate more acres. This does not always improve their income, but it does trap farmers in an irrational cycle of debt and waste, glut commodity markets, and drain the aquifers.
Corporate profiteering is a major driver of depletion. Big industries, their shell companies, and distant investors have displaced many family farms here over the past three decades. Absentee owners control about 60 percent of the land around my family’s farm. Some of the nation’s largest meatpacking plants, mega-dairies, and ethanol factories have moved in. They pay nothing for the groundwater they use other than the cost of pumping it. Their profits are exported to shareholders and managers far away. When one area goes dry, such businesses just move to another, while local residents are left to face the growing bills.
Groundwater governance can also be sullied by corporate influence and exclusionary rules. The state of Kansas set up “groundwater management districts” to allow communities in regions of heavy water use to decide their own futures. In principle, it was a good idea. In practice, it caused the opposite result. Today, only those who own at least 40 acres of land or substantial water rights can vote on aquifer policy, which means the people allowed to decide the fate of the Ogallala Aquifer include the same producers and corporations that reap the most short-term benefits from draining it. Yet the majority of rural Kansans are excluded from the processes that will determine the long-term futures of their families and communities. The burdens fall most heavily on those already struggling to make ends meet.
Together, these dynamics form one of the great groundwater swindles of our time. Rural people and lands are being exploited and then blamed for the conditions of their own marginality. Corporations reap the reward and spread distrust and division to do so. Failures of policy, democracy, and perception turn into an environmental calamity. Similar dramas of groundwater loss are spreading around the world. Most of the planet’s arid-region aquifers are in decline. As Earth warms and droughts intensify, these pressures will only increase.
How soon before we see another Dust Bowl situation? The clouds of dust went all the way to New York then.
I feel like this is one of those essentials too few people consider in their prep.