September 17, 2008

Easy Pickens?

By Julene Bair

While touting his plan to wean us off foreign oil, Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens makes no bones about being heavily invested in the natural gas he wants us to use in our cars. Nor does he deny the wind generated on his 200,000-acre wind farm would inflate a fortune accumulated selling fossil fuel. But he says little of his intention to market fossil water.

That's what conservationists call finite supplies of water dating to prehistoric times. The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest such supply on our continent. It underlies the Plains all the way from Pickens' North Texas to South Dakota. Thanks to help he obtained from the Texas Legislature, he has stacked the board of a tiny water district. By the power of eminent domain, also granted him by the Legislature, he can force landowners to sell him rights to a 320-mile strip of land connecting him to Dallas. He will pipe the water down the same corridor he plans to use transmitting his wind power.

Water is life, and the rate we're squandering it outpaces even our flagrant waste of oil. This is nowhere so true as on the Great Plains, where withdrawals from the Ogallala threaten to close down most irrigation farming before the end of this century.

Grain crops in danger

The aquifer grows much of the grain the world eats. Its depletion would cause starvation in many countries. But there's a problem with casting Pickens as an evil water baron. It singles out just one of thousands of capitalists who sell precious Ogallala water for private gain. Like him, they are aided by government.

I grew up on a western Kansas farm before irrigation became widespread. My family raised winter wheat, a sensible crop for the dry region. It could tolerate cold and retain moisture from snow, then be harvested as summer began. But on each return visit to Kansas, I've found a greener place. This is not because farmers developed a greener consciousness. It's because they began growing crops that stay green all summer and demand much more water.

Water power

Pickens shouldn't be allowed to sell 65 billion gallons a year as he proposes, but neither should Plains farmers be allowed to pump 6.2 trillion gallons annually. In selling their grain, they are really selling the water. More than half of that water is poured onto corn. This is a waste because 85% of this nation's corn is grown in wetter regions without the aid of irrigation. Corn is hardly worth the sacrifice of our water. Yet, our government underwrites this waste by subsidizing the crop and mandating that gas sold contain higher amounts of ethanol.

With populations increasing and global warming likely to cause widespread drought, the world is going to need the water embedded in our grain exports. We should redirect the billions we spend on corn subsidies to reward farmers for growing crops suitable to their climate. We should take control from local water districts. Under federal or state control, we could end Texas' "right of capture" policy, which parcels water to the landowner with the biggest pump.

Stewarded in this way, the Ogallala might last for thousands more years. We must recognize our planetary limits and harmful environmental practices. Otherwise, drought and famine will adjust our numbers for us.

Julene Bair is a writer and author of One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter. She will soon complete Where Rivers Run Sand, a personal account of the crisis facing the Ogallala Aquifer. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>