Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Reprieve for the Ogallala Aquifer

A few minutes ago, I ran across this small wire report in The Dallas Morning News:

"LUBBOCK - Billionaire and wind energy advocate T. Boone Pickens has indefinitely suspended plans for a water pipeline aimed at shipping water from the Texas Panhandle to thirsty cities downstate. Mr. Pickens is continuing to pursue rights of way for electric transmission lines to carry power generated by a planned wind farm. Spokesman said there were no buyers for the water."

Politics aside, I like and admire Boone Pickens in spite of his fearsome reputation. Several years ago, I interviewed him for the Dallas Business Journal and found him gracious, funny, and self-effacing. That said, I'd hate to be one of his enemies.

Wind towers are ugly, noisy, and potentially deadly to birds. I have serious reservations about the Kenedy County Wind Energy Development project on the Texas coast. Nevertheless, I appreciate Boone Pickens's leadership on the issues of peak oil and wind power. Yes, he has a serious financial stake, but at least he has something to offer. We have to wean ourselves from fossil fuel, and wind power is one alternative. Wind farms on certain parts of the High Plains - one of the world's windiest regions - make sense.

However, I've always opposed Pickens's water project. I'm not sorry to learn that he has abandoned it for the time being. In theory, he'd purchase rights to drill and pump fossil groundwater from all over the northern Panhandle then pipe it to customers in Dallas, Fort Worth, and other profligate water consumers. Under the outdated "Right of Capture," he could sell as much water as he could pump. Never mind that the Ogallala Aquifer, the basis of the entire High Plains economy, is being rapidly depleted by heavy pumping for irrigation. In some areas, the water level has dropped 100 feet or more.

Proponents of the plan say that water is worth more to the farmers than the crops they could grow, and that once the water is gone, agriculture on the southern High Plains will cease, and the native grasses and wildlife, even bison, could return. One way or another, the Ogallala will be depleted. Landowners might as well get the maximum benefit from the pumping rights.

This isn't a ridiculous position. Week before last, I spoke with a prominent High Plains agricultural expert about the state of the Ogallala Aquifer. I asked him why so few people, are talking about it. His answer: "Because it's too awful to imagine. So they don't imagine. It's easier to deny the problem and keep doing what you've always done."

Sound familiar? "Drill, baby, drill!"

But selling fossil water will hasten the destruction of the region's economy, leaving less time for orderly transition and will likely speed the already unsustainable growth in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex while delaying critical debate about limits.

These days, Boone Pickens is focused on wind. I wish him much success. Hopefully, he'll be too busy to get back to his water project.


Matt Mullenix said...

You should talk to my friend (and fellow hawker and dog man) Jimmy Walker in Amarillo. Jimmy is a geologist and knows a great deal about the aquifer and the region's reliance on it.

Also, he is a great guy to drive around with. 100% Texan. And I mean that as a compliment, of course.

I'll be up at Jimmy's over Thanksgiving. Come on up!

Henry Chappell said...

Thanks for the tip, Matt. I'd enjoy talking with your friend. I'm working on a book proposal about Texas water issues, and of course the Ogallala will be a big part of it.

And thanks for the invitation. I might just take you up on it!

Smart Dogs said...

Back in the mid-1970's I worked on a project tracking the de-watering in California's Sierra Valley. Was amazed then, and continue to scratch my head at why so little attention seems to be focused on rapid depletion of aquifers across the country when we make such a huge fuss about any type of groundwater contamination.

Mind you, I'm not in favor of contaminating groundwater - but might not being gone forever be worse than being contaminated?

It is indeed "too awful to imagine."