September 30, 2015

In a recent survey by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 40 of 50 state water managers said they anticipate some supply shortages over the next decade.

Yet water problems in the U.S. are less an issue of supply than distribution. Far more precipitation falls from the sky across the country during an average year than is used by every home, farm, ranch, business or factory.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that total average water use in the Lower 48 states for everything but energy production was about 70 trillion gallons in 2010, the latest year for which data was available. About 24 times that amount falls as rain in an average year.

The annual surplus is so great that it could cover the continental U.S. with water more than 2 feet deep, but there is little political appetite or funding to expand the kind of water storage and distribution systems that allowed the growth and agricultural boom in the West.

Periodically, someone suggests building a pipeline to supply California’s thirsty cities with water from rural, wetter regions. Serious proposals for pipelines to Alaska in the 1990s and far Northern California in the 1970s were rejected as far too expensive.

Officials in Kansas, where the Ogallala aquifer has dropped more than 100 feet in some places, floated the idea of building a 360-mile canal and 15 pumping stations to move Missouri River water across the state to irrigate fields in the state’s southwest.

Back in the 1980s, farmer Bill Mai realized that the Ogallala would not be a reliable source. He turned to “dryland” farming, growing wheat and corn using only the water that falls from the sky onto his 2,200 acres in far western Kansas. While that has worked, others have pumped so much that wells that once hit water at 105 feet below the surface must now sink even deeper, to 194 feet, he said.

And, Mai said, less than 30 feet remains in the water table where he lives in Wallace County.

“A lot of the people say, ‘It’s my water. I’m going to use it until it’s gone,'” Mai said.

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