The Ogallala Aquifer: A Case Against Capitalism

by G.G. Zangar

For many readers, especially those along the coasts, “Ogallala Aquifer” might sound made up or even comical. The reality is that it is a natural resource that has perpetuated the might of the US through its contribution to US agriculture. As with all resources that are critical to life, private interests and a lack of oversight are over-exploiting the aquifer and causing environmental damage as well as an existential threat to the water supply in the US. This article lays out another case, among many, for the imperative of establishing central planning of our resources for the benefit of the people and not the capitalists.

An “aquifer”, according to The Britannica Dictionary, is “a layer of rock or sand that can absorb and hold water”.[1] In our case, the Ogallala aquifer is a series of underground strata that encompasses 174,000mi2 of the Midwestern United States and supplies eight states, either wholly or in large part, with their water supply.[2] The states that draw from the aquifer are Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. The Aquifer is so vast that, according to an article by Scientific American, if the water from Ogallala aquifer were spread across the surface of all 50 states, the depth would be 1.5ft deep.[3] The region occupied by the aquifer has an ironic history as it is the setting of the infamous Dust Bowl that plagued the nation in the 1930s. Though the aquifer was technically discovered in Ogallala, Nebraska in the 1890s by the US Geological Survey[4],  its value was not totally understood and acted upon until the 1950s.[5] Through the mid-20th century advances in irrigation and pumping technology brought the aquifer’s “High Plains Region” into full production as the agricultural powerhouse that it is today. The importance of the aquifer to US agriculture cannot be overstated as it is the main force driving the $35 billion agriculture industry in these eight states[6] and it provides 82% of all drinking water to the people who live within the region.[7]  The Ogallala aquifer alone “supports 30% of all crop and animal production in the US”[8] and is, unfortunately, not renewable.

Image of the Ogallala Aquifer from above, from Rhodes et al, The Declining Ogallala Aquifer and the Future Role of Rangeland Science on the North American High Plains

The Ogalala Aquifer would indeed replenish itself; however, at such a low rate that it would take 6,000 years to do so with all current irrigation practices ceased.[9] The rate at which we are currently drawing from the aquifer will have it completely depleted by 2100.[10] For a nearer term perspective, 69% of the Ogallala Aquifer will be withdrawn by 2063.[11] The depletion in the seven years from 2001-2008 was 32% of all the depletion that occurred throughout the 1900s.[12] It is a dire situation when 30% of all crop production is facing annihilation within the next few decades. One would think an imminent famine would serve as the impetus for serious intervention by policymakers.

However, to think that one can leave decisions concerning the rational use of crucial resources up to policymakers is to forget that we live under the monetary rule of capitalist economics in which the only policies that get made are those that serve the interests of the propertied class. The fact that poor management of the Ogallala Aquifer is imminently bringing about another famine that is likely to champion the magnitude of the Dust Bowl is but an afterthought to those that wield power in the United States. Despite the finite nature of the aquifer, the profit motive exploits this vital resource through expanding production from the pre-1950s crops of wheat, alfalfa, and sorghum, to the modern agricultural complex that is comprised of vast swathes of corn to feed livestock, or as is the case for soybeans, mass exportation to China. As late as 2005, further egregious practices were established upon the aquifer in the form of The Energy Policy Act which ramped up production of corn, another water-intensive crop, for the purpose of ethanol production via subsidies. The Energy Act did this under the guise of “energy management” in an effort to lower gas prices among hundreds of other dubious energy initiatives.[13]

A graph depicting the increase in corn production as an example of irresponsible use of the Ogallala aquifer from USDA Economic Research Service[14]. Note that the 1930 was the Dust Bowl and that the 1950s is when industrial use of the aquifer took off. 2005 is when The Energy Policy Act was enacted which provided incentive to grow more corn for ethanol production.

The current capitalist regime running the United States is suicidal in its pursuit of ever-increasing profits. Despite the depletion of the aquifer being well known to farmers and scientists, the capitalist government cannot feasibly create a policy to avoid a creeping, tragic famine in the coming decades. Capitalism has proven itself, yet again, incapable of doing what is imperative for the people or even the obscenely rich who perpetuate it. The United States needs a controlled economy in which resources are distributed rationally as opposed to being a commodity. The United States needs a system in which the damage accompanying the extraction of resources is not seen as a mere side effect in which some other entity will have to ameliorate the permanently destructive effects. It is time for a system that enables the global working class to use and distribute resources in a responsible way to benefit humanity locally and globally. That system is socialism.

[1]“Aquifer Definition & Meaning | Britannica Dictionary.”

[2]Rhodes et al., “The Declining Ogallala Aquifer and the Future Role of Rangeland Science on the North American High Plains.”

[3]Little, “The Ogallala Aquifer.”

[4]Rhodes et al., “The Declining Ogallala Aquifer and the Future Role of Rangeland Science on the North American High Plains.”

[5]“NIFA Impacts.”

[6]“NIFA Impacts.”

[7]Rhodes et al., “The Declining Ogallala Aquifer and the Future Role of Rangeland Science on the North American High Plains.”

[8]Rhodes et al.

[9]Little, “The Ogallala Aquifer.”

[10]Rhodes et al., “The Declining Ogallala Aquifer and the Future Role of Rangeland Science on the North American High Plains.”

[11]“Dustbowl Waters.”

[12]“Dustbowl Waters.”

[13]US EPA, “Summary of the Energy Policy Act.”

[14]“USDA ERS – Feed Grains Sector at a Glance.”


“Aquifer Definition & Meaning | Britannica Dictionary.” Accessed February 7, 2023.

“Dustbowl Waters: Doctrinal and Legislative Solutions to Save the Ogallala A…,” n.d.

Little, Jane Braxton. “The Ogallala Aquifer: Saving a Vital U.S. Water Source.” Scientific American. Accessed February 7, 2023.

“NIFA Impacts: Saving the Ogallala Aquifer, Supporting Farmers.” Accessed February 7, 2023.

Rhodes, Edward C., Humberto L. Perotto-Baldivieso, Evan P. Tanner, Jay P. Angerer, and William E. Fox. “The Declining Ogallala Aquifer and the Future Role of Rangeland Science on the North American High Plains.” Rangeland Ecology & Management 87 (March 1, 2023): 83–96.

US EPA, OP. “Summary of the Energy Policy Act.” Overviews and Factsheets, February 22, 2013.

“USDA ERS – Feed Grains Sector at a Glance.” Accessed February 7, 2023.