America’s high plains often evoke images of fields of crops that stretch as far as the eye can see, but that was not always the case.  Having a semi-arid climate, the region was initially brown grasslands, only becoming the breadbasket of the world after World War II when technologies such as diesel-powered pumps were developed that vastly increased water extraction capabilities from deep within the ground.  For much of the region, this water comes from the Ogallala Aquifer, the underground reservoir that runs through parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.  The aquifer provides over ninety percent of the water for irrigation in the region but over the years, pumping has outpaced replenishment, severely reducing water levels in the aquifer. 

By 1980, water levels in the region were found to have dropped an average of nearly 10 feet but some areas saw a decline of as much as 100 feet.[1] Groundwater levels have dropped so low in certain areas that wells are no longer functional.  Concerns for the economic viability of the region are growing as it is closely tied to water access with more than 80 percent of the land used for agriculture with a market value of $92 billion.[2]

The value of the aquifer and the irrigation it provides was recently studied by two agricultural economists from Kansas State University who found that land values in Northwest Kansas were approximately $3.8 billion greater than they would be without access to the Ogallala Aquifer, and that continued depletion would annually decrease returns by $34.1 million by 2050.[3] In Kansas, agriculture is the top industry accounting for more than 40 percent of the total economy.  Without access to water from the aquifer, a large part of the economy would be devastated, and severe economic impacts would be felt far beyond the agricultural sector.

The issue of aquifer depletion presents a Catch-22: Using the water to support all that it does from irrigation to drinking water depletes it, ultimately causing economic stress; not using it to save it would have the same outcome – the potential economic collapse of a region. This predicament isn’t applicable only to the Ogallala Aquifer region; it’s relevant worldwide.


[1] Little, Jane Braxton. “The Ogallala Aquifer: Saving a Vital U.S. Water Source.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 1 Mar. 2009,

[2] Bentrup, Gary, and Michele Schoeneberger. “Agroforestry: Enhancing Resiliency in U.S. Agricultural Landscapes Under Changing Conditions, Appendix A.”,

[3] Hendricks, Nathan P., and Gabriel S. Sampson. “The Value of Groundwater in the High Plains Aquifer of Western Kansas.” The Value of Groundwater in the High Plains Aquifer of Western Kansas |, 10 Feb. 2022,