Water Wars: The Other Circular Economy

As Western water grows more precious, what is the future of farming?

Water Wars: The Other Circular Economy
A satellite image centered on Sublette, Kansas showing center pivot irrigated farmland with US Route 56 cutting diagonally across it. Source: NASA

We humans have a built-in capacity to take things for granted. Perhaps it is a survival instinct, a constant drive to find a placid state of “normal.” It’s an understandable goal, but it is futile. For most of the twentieth century we took the “normal” functioning of the planet’s climate system for granted; some, amazingly, still do.

Among the many things taken for granted today is the truly incredible opportunity afforded by an airliner’s window seat to view the planet from a perspective available to no human beyond the few most recent generations. We make much of the famous “blue marble” image of the Earth from space taken by Apollo 17. But the “one world” clarity of that powerful photo does not require a ticket on SpaceX or Virgin Galactic. A relatively cheap window seat on Spirit Airlines will do the trick.

As a person who has spent a career flying across the planet, first as a news correspondent, then as a reluctant businessman and not-so-reluctant tourist, I have seen amazing sites—and disturbing changes—since I first started flying in the middle of the last century. Many marked sudden upheavals. I flew over the cone of the Mt. St. Helen’s volcano a few months after the eruption and surveyed lower Manhattan on Sept. 15, 2001, on a flight taking me toward Afghanistan just a few days after the 9/11 attacks.

Others are slow but no less striking. Terrestrial changes should be evident to any person who has had occasion to look down at the passing landscape a few times over the last few decades. A flight across America was once a cavalcade of baseball fields, villages, and small farms. Some remain, but increasingly, they are displaced by soccer pitches, sprawling suburbs, and vast agribusinesses.

And here we come to circles. Flying across the middle of the North American continent in the late 1970s, a dun-colored plain dominated the view outside, a distant echo of the Dust Bowl that devasted farming communities in the 1930s and the Great Plains plowed and developed into oblivion. Then, around 1984 or so, I noticed little green circles below, the result of an inventive and highly efficient watering system called center pivot irrigation. This involves a huge rotating sprinkler on wheels extending 400 to 500 meters (about four to five football fields) from a center pipe that is using an automobile engine or other power to draw water from the aquifer. Some modern versions, for instance the H.G. Wells-scaled monsters built by Nelson Irrigation and other firms, can pump 5,000 gallons a minute from the ground below.

The circular farms created by this technique had been visible here and there since the 1960s, but toward the end of the twentieth century, they proliferated. As they did, harvests boomed, and farmers realized their age-old reliance on rainfall had been broken. Today, these strange and productive circles fill the landscape. They have a weird beauty of their own. Yet what is not immediately evident from the air is their impact on the world beneath them. While center pivot irrigation has been a boon to agriculture and also diminished the need to resort to even more damaging and inefficient techniques—like the constant tillage that scientists ultimately determined had led to massive crop failures like the Dust Bowl—it has also proven to be an enormously efficient suck on aquifers.

Giant sucking sound

In Iowa, parts of Kansas and Missouri, and Texas, where the bumper rainfall of the 2022–23 season failed to make an appearance, groundwater is being removed at a pace that is unsustainable. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that this region, where about 30 percent of U.S. agriculture is raised, has pumped about 10 percent of the total volume of the huge Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, from the ground since center pivot irrigation began to proliferate in the 1960s. All of these states are in various stages of what the U.S. Drought Monitor at the University of Nevada/Las Vegas deems “severe drought.” To some extent, the rivers serving these states are in better shape than the Colorado River: the Missouri, the Arkansas, the Platte, and, of course, the Mississippi. Farmers also tend to grow far less thirsty crops than their comrades further west, with corn, wheat, and soybeans predominating along with cattle, chickens, pigs, and other livestock.

Even so, USGS says it would take about 6,000 years for rainfall to replace water already removed from the Ogallala Aquifer, by far the largest in North America. The pace of pumping continues to increase, and even at current rates, Texas A&M and Stanford estimate that the aquifer’s future life span is about 80 years.

It is not alone. In Arizona, New Mexico, and more arid regions of California, groundwater pumping both by agriculture and municipalities is causing fissures to open, often running for miles as subterranean water that once held up the Earth’s crust is depleted. While groundwater depletion is a national problem—the USGS says almost half the thousands of sites it monitors in the US have “declined significantly” in the past few decades—the deepest declines have occurred in the Lower Colorado River basin: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada.

Still, however, while the Ogallala is diminishing along with the rest, there is time to save it.

Measuring water

Until recently, determining the degree to which groundwater was depleting was a guessing game. But scientists found in a 2014 study that satellite imaging enabled them to peg the speed of depletion in the first decade of the twenty-first century at more than 40 million acre-feet of groundwater in the Colorado River Basin. That’s the equivalent of Lake Shasta or Florida’s Lake Okeechobee disappearing, or two of New York’s Lake George.

The study data pre-dates the worst stretch of the mega-drought that has continued for most of the last decade. It also doesn’t account for accelerating groundwater pumping by agriculture, industry, and municipalities. One can surmise, then, that the current situation is worse.

Jay Famiglietti, a hydrology professor at Arizona State University who led the 2014 study, says that groundwater losses of that magnitude are “an existential threat to desert cities like Phoenix and Tucson." In the forward of a recent Pew Foundation report on the Future of Water, “[t]hese great aquifer systems are being mined, primarily for irrigation in the overlying, mega-food-producing regions of the world. This disappearance of groundwater places regional and global water and food security at increasing risk.”

Major Aquifers of California
Moran circle 2
Source: California State University

The degree of decline varies greatly between aquifers. Unlike the Midwest’s huge Ogallala groundwater resource, there are no aquifers of similar size under the Southwest, where a patchwork of smaller basins exists. California, for instance, lists over 500 aquifers and basins beneath its territory, with a few larger ones, including the Central Valley aquifer, the San Diego formation, and smaller basins in the Santa Clara Valley, the San Joaquin River basin, and others (see map above). Many are in decline, some of them steeply.

In the San Joaquin Valley, for instance, the water table has dropped an average of 150 feet in the last decade, with the drop in some places reaching 700 feet. Over 5,000 residential wells have gone dry across the state, many of them in the San Joaquin Valley, a center of grape, tomato, cotton and sugar-beet production.

The El Nino weather pattern that brought record rains to California in 2022–23 have helped a bit, but a combination of bureaucracy and infrastructure challenges meant that the vast majority of that deluge flowed not into aquifers but rather into the Pacific Ocean.

Jay Lund, an environmental engineering professor at UC Davis Professor, says the recharge projects like those some California water districts have launched can be part of the solution, but that in the long run this is a supply and demand problem. “We have to reduce demand,” he says, and the problem will continue as long as farmers are pumping water out of the ground faster than water is seeping back in.

Costly solutions and powerful opponents

With over a half-century of proven results behind it, center pivot irrigation will be difficult to displace. For better or worse, the introduction of center pivot irrigation was a direct response to the age-old patterns of tillage, water diversion canals, and unreliable rainfall that led to the Dust Bowl. Before the extent of damage being done to aquifers came into focus, center pivot was considered revolutionary and is credited with having more than tripled output-per-acre in the otherwise arid great plains and Southwest.

It also saved an iconic American way of life, if only for a while. After the Dust Bowl, federal agricultural officials had weighed the idea of depopulating the undependable Great Plains. One of the lesser-known New Deal agencies was the Resettlement Administration, founded in 1935 to deal with the desperate plight of “dusted out” farm families. World War II interrupted the agency’s granted population resettlement plans, and then, in 1947, a Nebraska farmer named Frank Zybach patented a new idea he called a “self-propelled irrigation system.” He sold the patent in the early 1950s to accompany called Valley Irrigation, which dominates the center pivot market to this day.

After the Depression and World War II ended, center pivot irrigation “gave life to the Great Plains communities that depended on agriculture,” wrote Joe Andersen, an environmental history at Canada’s Mount Royal University in Smithsonian Magazine. “Families and laborers shopped at local retailers and deposited wages in local banks, keeping small towns alive, and irrigators paid the property taxes that sustained local governments. Center pivot irrigation supported local high schools, clubs, churches, and a whole way of life that would have literally dried up if the fields were less productive.”

Of course, the Great Plains that European settlers originally encountered looked nothing like the Norman Rockwell vision laid out above. In the nineteenth century, before rivers began being diverted and windmills erected to draw modestly from the Ogallala, the region was referred to as “the Great American Desert,” so unproductive was its soil. The ecosystem that supported nomadic Native American hunters, buffalo, prairie dogs and other small mammals was overwhelmingly grassland, extending from the eastern foothills of the Canadian Rockies to the Mississippi River and down into Mexico. The rapid settlement that began in the 1860s changed all that, as the grasslands were replaced by tilled farmland, the Native Americans by Europeans, the buffalo by horses and livestock.

While the Dust Bowl looms large in the collective imagination, meanwhile, it was only the worst of more than a dozen drought cycles that had plagued this newly planted region in the years after the Civil War. The conclusions reached by FDR’s agricultural scientists—that the Plains should be allowed to revert to its natural state—was not entirely crazy from a weather standpoint. From a political one, however, the idea was a nonstarter.

The price is not right

While farmers across the west had used windmills to draw water from aquifers, replacing wind with diesel and then natural gas- powered engines attached to center pivot systems vastly increased the flow. Combined with the diminishing availability of surface water from the Colorado and other rivers, this has brought a crisis into view. Eventually, most now agree, something has to give. But just what that something is continues to be subject to debate.

The potential solutions, not surprisingly, all pivot on that most basic question: money. The way forward will probably involve a combination of three things: Bringing new technologies and farming methods to scale, convincing farmers through incentives or regulation to conserve or move away from the most water-intensive crops, and pricing water in a way that better reflects the actual cost and scarcity of the resource.

Start with farming methods. A cottage industry has sprung up advocating solutions like backyard plots, community gardens, micro-farming, and hanging urban agriculture. This organic, farm-to-table vision has plenty of advocates, but it will not feed a planet of eight billion-plus people. To do that, solutions need to be both scalable and politically realistic.

The most promising such technology is known as drip irrigation, which does precisely what it sounds like. Rather than spraying torrents of water into the air over cropped acreage—a process that results in significant water waste through evaporation and wind—drip irrigation, in theory, delivers just the right dose of H20 directly to the plant’s roots. Studies vary, but water savings range between 25 and 70 percent, depending on the crop and the care with which the system is maintained. With agriculture using between 70 and 80 percent of the ground and surface water in all these states, that’s no drop in the bucket.

Yet, as with most every greening initiative like the construction of a green electrical grid, the goal of meeting global food production needs with a sustainable amount of water won’t be cheap. As I wrote two years ago, “greenflation,” the actual added cost to goods and services caused by our need to move toward more sustainable practices, is very real. These costs will be borne by farmers, agribusiness but most of all consumers. That fact needs to be faced head on or it will be a sitting duck for the enemies of more sustainable practices.

With that in mind, converting the center pivot irrigation farm economy to drip irrigation will be a daunting prospect. Each deployment involves miles and miles of small piping, new centralized pumping stations and a great deal more of the farmer’s time devoted to maintenance to prevent clogs or backups due to gravity. Center pivot is undeniably cheaper to adopt and easier to maintain. For many farmers, that ends the argument. But new laws targeting aquifer depletion, like California’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and Nebraska’s decision to start metering water drawn by farmers for irrigation, could change the economics. While its goal is to bring California’s aquifers to a renewable balance by 2040, there is already pressure from activists to bring that date forward.

But so far progress has been fairly meager. Even as studies show that drip irrigation, for many crops, has enormous advantages, farmers who lived through the latest years of drought instead have put their chips on tried-and-true methods. In many parts of the Lower Colorado basin, the companies that drill center pivot wells are backed up six-to-eight months due to strong demand. While California in 2022 banned new wells in some areas, the San Joaquin Valley, for instance, there’s no sign that this is the start of a regional pattern.

And there are powerful interests push back against drip irrigation, too. Valmont, a $4.3 billion agricultural engineering company that owns the firm that bought Farmer Zybach’s patent decades ago, claims to have over 250,000 of its huge center pivot irrigation rigs operating globally. The company’s website refers often to sustainability and conservation, and they offer this handy “FAQ” clearly aimed at scaring off any farmer who might be considering drip irrigation as an alternative. Marketing copy, of course, has no obligation to point out the downsides inherent in the product being marketed. But honesty often brings credibility. What you won’t find in “Drip Irrigation v Center Pivots: Separating Fact from Fiction,” is that drip irrigation uses less water to irrigate the same amount of land, increases yields and allows a farmer to irrigate their entire plot, not just a circle in the middle. On balance, those benefits might not yet be enough to move a farmer to take out a loan and convert to drip irrigation, but politics, economics, and water scarcity may soon change all that.

Changing the economics, through regulation or incentives, clearly will be necessary. The small irrigation well drilling ban imposed by California in 2022 is probably too blunt an instrument. But the deal reached by the seven Colorado River Basin states earlier this year to conserve the river’s diminishing flow is a major step forward. Known as the Lower Basin Agreement, it pledged big cuts in surface water resources for California, Nevada and Arizona. In exchange, an infusion of $1.2 billion from the huge federal Inflation Reduction Act is being offered to “fallow” regional acreage; that is, paying farmers who agree not to plant crops for one-to-three years in an effort to conserve water. The price offered to fallow a single acre in the Lower Basin is $521, far beyond what previous local pilot programs had offered.

The cash infusion hardly looks like a long-term solution, and farmers may well pocket the cash and restart business as usual at the end of their pledged hiatus. But by pegging the value of an acre of water at $521, the deal set a precedent that could be transformational. Until now, farmers have paid a heavily subsidized low price per acre foot of about $20. Federal officials hope that by pegging the fallowing subsidy so high, the implied price of the water that would have irrigated that plot will rise, too – permanently – and have an impact beyond the end of the three-year program.

How would that work? Well, consider alfalfa, the dominant crop in the Colorado River basin. This valuable grass is exported globally as livestock feed. Alfalfa, this autumn, was selling for between $246 and $250 per ton on spot markets. One acre of alfalfa yields about six tons and requires about three acre-feet of water to grow. At the old $20 per acre-foot water price, the farmer spends $60 in water for $1,560 of alfalfa, leaving plenty for costs and profit. But at $521 per acre-foot of water the farmer will pay $1,563 for water alone for that same $1,560 in alfalfa, That’s a lot of work to lose $3 a ton. While the initial point of the program was to pay the farmer NOT to produce for a few years, the hope is that the farmer, while collecting those fallow checks, will wonder whether going back to notoriously water dependent alfalfa is his best way forward.

The trend, if it can be call that, is not only being encouraged by federal subsidies, but also by the reality that nature simply isn’t going to tolerate over-pumping any longer. Regulations that may require farmers to actually meter the water they’re drawing at these higher prices could also bite hard.

The reality is, few irrigation districts actually meter water being pumped from aquifers at the source, meaning farmers often draw far more water than they pay for. For that reason, they traditionally have pushed back ferociously on recent efforts to meter irrigation usage across the West. But a dry well has a way of changing minds.

Mike Shannon is the City Manager of Guymon, the largest farming town in the dry Oklahoma panhandle. He’s seen the overdrawing go on for decades. State water officials, he says, “know in the panhandle region it takes four, maybe five acre-feet to grow corn,” Shannon said. “They know that. But they still allow the farmer to report they used two acre-feet. Until they prove me wrong, I’ll keep saying it.”

But ss wells there have increasingly gone bone dry there, even the farmers are now getting religion. “If I would’ve said that I wish the farmers would have put meters on ten years ago, I would have probably been asked to leave Oklahoma,” Shannon says. “I’m saying it more now, and farmers are going, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”

Dry wells are one thing. A dry aquifer would be a permanent disaster. Harbingers of this nightmare have started to appear. In 2022, a new level of urgency arose in New Mexico’s largest city when the Rio Grande ran dry. That river, along with the state’s allocation from the Colorado, supplies Albuquerque and many other communities with water.

The state’s agriculture industry, representing a modest portion of the state’s GDP, still uses over 80 percent of the surface water New Mexico is allocated from the Colorado River, and is subject to few limitations on how much free groundwater it can pump to fuel the state’s thirsty main cash crops, alfalfa, and pecans. The result has been a spate of residential wells, which are drilled far shallower than center pivot wells, also running dry. The advocacy group Food and Water Watch, which issued a report on New Mexico’s plight in 2022, places virtually all the blame on agriculture. “We cannot protect our future against drought without combatting corporate agriculture,” the group said.

This deep-seeded libertarian resentment of far-off Washington (or, for that matter, Santa Fe, Sacramento or Phoenix) makes for timid politicians. But libertarians themselves, suddenly alarmed at the very real prospect of a water emergency that empower policymakers into draconian action, now are embracing market forces as part of the solution.

“Economics tells us that all goods — land, houses, cars, steak — are scarce; if they were free, we would all want more.” writes David Boaz, an economist at the Cato Institute, the nation’s leading libertarian think tank. “If we treated water like other scarce goods, we would charge market prices for it. The introduction of market prices for any previously unpriced good is likely to be unpopular with many people, who now have to pay for something that was previously “free.” It wasn’t really free, of course; it was paid for by other people or by rationing. But market pricing could greatly alleviate the West’s water problems.”

As with the great debate over carbon pricing, putting a real-world price on groundwater is easier said than done. Water is also a difficult commodity to trade in, as aquifers are not interconnected like electricity grids, and the commodity would be difficult to move from, say, wet Montana to dry Arizona.

City slickers and other stereotypes

Farmers don’t much like wearing the black hat. They aren’t water barons in the way we might think of the oil barons of old. Farms employ hardworking people; exposed to the tender mercies of federal agencies, developers, pests, the market, and the planet’s chaotic weather patterns; producing crops most of us take for granted.

Surface vs Ground Water Use in the Colorado River Basin
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Source: USGS/Environmental Defense Fund

Yes, agriculture is by far the greatest consumer of increasingly scarce water resources, but the finger-pointing infuriates many farmers, who see the attacks on what they do as typical of an urbanized elite who thinks that bacon and corn and avocado toast grow on trees.

“We’re always getting attacked for something like using water to grow crops,” says Paco Ollerton, a third-generation Arizona farmer whose planted land has gone from 200 acres to just 50 thanks to new cuts to his county’s water supplies. “They don’t think about where it came from and who’s growing it.”

How did farmers go from the struggling heroes of “Live Aid” a few decades ago to destroyers of the planet? J. Arbuckle, professor and extension sociologist at Iowa State University, says that view misses important changes in attitudes among farmers, who, after all, know better than most the environmental strains that their lands have suffered in recent years. Iowa State’s influential Farm Poll, for example, has tracked that state’s farmers’ attitudes on climate issues for over a decade. The last time the question was asked, in 2020, 81% of farmers indicated that climate change is occurring, up from 68% in 2011.

“Farmers have experienced a lot of extreme weather since 2011, from droughts to extreme wet, and it’s likely that’s driving some of the changes in perspectives,” he says. “They are not burying their heads in the soil.”

Blaming farmers for farming does seem fairly futile. Most are not “rich,” in any real sense. But they’re also largely capitalist and, as such, they respond to the market. If incentives and regulations change to reflect the dual crises of surface and groundwater depletion, if water is metered and begins to reflect its true value and new technologies adopted to use it more sustainably, farmers will adapt as they always have.

“Center pivot technology epitomizes much of what it is to be an American – it was a technological triumph that enabled a production revolution,” says Mount Royal University’s Joe Anderson. “The people who built it took pride in their achievement: They were American inventors who created something out of almost nothing. But the system also drew on less-productive American impulses—not just ingenuity and drive, but also unchecked resource use and ever-increasing scale.”

Coming up in Part IV of Water Wars: Washington’s no-win role as mediator