When a natural resource – like iron or gold – is mined, it’s usually taken out of the ground and never replaced. Groundwater is a different type of natural resource. It can be replaced. Gradually, rain that gets trapped in the soil (instead of running off into rivers) will percolate down until it reaches the gravel and sand layers that will hold it underground. The problem is that the process takes a very long time. Even as the first irrigation wells were being drilled, there were those who realized that the wells would remove water faster than it could be replaced.
Irrigators were mining the water in the underground aquifer. But not everyone shared that belief.
Early groundwater irrigators were so impressed by the size of the Ogallala Aquifer that they thought it contained an “inexhaustible” supply. Some thought that the snows on the Rockies melted and flowed directly into the aquifer, or that a distant arctic glacier was the source. They argued the Ogallala was inexhaustible, so it didn’t matter how much water was pumped out, even if some of it was wasted.
After World War II, three factors combined to produce a drastic drop in the water table, particularly in the southern plains state of Texas.
- First, the number of new wells exploded because farmers had money in their pockets and well and pump technology was getting better and cheaper.
- Second, many farmers began to irrigate more than one crop, running the pumps longer each year.
- Third, farmers remembered the drought of the 1930s and feared another.
In some sections of Texas, the drop in the water table reached an astounding 100 feet because of irrigation. By 1949, the Texas Board of Water Engineers issued a dire warning:
“If the present trends of pumping and water-level decline continue, those areas [under pump irrigation] and other parts of the irrigated region will be seriously affected within five to 10 years.”
Irrigators, on the other hand, were just beginning to feel like their pumps made it possible to farm with a lot more security. They vigorously fought against any suggestion that their use of underground water would have to be regulated. Yet the water table kept dropping.
York County farmer Jim Chenault knows first hand what happens when you mine the aquifer under your land. He has pumped his well dry and is looking for another vein of water. “I’m at the bottom of the hole,” Jim laughs, “so I’m hoping that it will start raining [laughs]… I hate to say it, and the farmer doesn’t want to admit the possibility, but there probably needs to be some regulations and some controls on how much water can be pumped.” Jim smiles then and says that if his neighbors find his comments on this Web site, “I better get out of town.”
These debates set the stage for major political fights in the decades that followed.