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[EXCERPT: "Pesticides and fertiliser leaked from local farms, raising sulphate levels in the well water....Now a boom in cattle and pig operations has stretched that supply to the limits....[A] big new pipeline, which in theory will pump 45m gallons a day from the Missouri river to about 200,000 people..."]
The Great Plains: Turning off the taps
From The Economist print edition
February 9, 2006
Amid all the other problems a growing need for new pipelines
THERE was a time when clean, sweet water bubbled up from wells in Hull. But like other Iowan towns, Hull's shallow aquifers left its water supply vulnerable to contamination. Pesticides and fertiliser leaked from local farms, raising sulphate levels in the well water and wreaking havoc on newcomers' digestive systems. Ten years ago, Hull capped its wells and turned to its neighbours for clean water. Now a boom in cattle and pig operations has stretched that supply to the limits. Without a new source of clean water, the town's future prosperity is doubtful.
Hull may be a harbinger of a drier future on the northern Plains. The town is one of many in the area whose groundwater has been contaminated by farm chemicals. Hull is one of 15 towns and five rural water systems, including South Dakota's biggest city, Sioux Falls, that have hitched their futures to the Lewis and Clark Rural Water System (LCRWS), a big new pipeline, which in theory will pump 45m gallons a day from the Missouri river to about 200,000 people thinly spread out across South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.
Dennis Healy, the boss of the Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water System in south-western Minnesota, calls the LCRWS, which is due to open in 2018, "our only viable option for a future water source". The towns and water systems that will benefit from the LCRWS have agreed to bear 10% of the project's estimated $420m price tag, and Sioux Falls has agreed to pay even more. But much of the rest is supposed to come from the federal government. Getting the cash is a priority for the region's senators.
For most of the last century the federal government was eager to help farmers turn the semi-arid northern plains into arable farmland. But that support has waned, along with the rural population. Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota already receive almost $3 billion in agricultural subsidies. Last year, Congress rather grumpily agreed to hand over half the $35m the LCRWS's backers wanted. This year, George Bush's budget offers $21m--$6m more than the project got last year but well below the requested $53m.
Without full funding, completion will be delayed several years, leaving many towns high and dry. Last year, Sioux Falls nearly tripled its requested stake in the project, from 10m gallons a day to 27m gallons. The city grew by 20% between 1990 and 2000. But city officials say water shortages may crimp growth as soon as 2012.
The story is much the same in the northern Plains states. North Dakota is revisiting a huge, 40-year-old project called the Garrison Diversion to deal with water shortages in the Red River Valley. The LCRWS is one of 13 water projects proposed or under development in the northern plains that seek federal money to redistribute water.
But is the answer really to lay new pipes? Natural-resource experts point out that cheap subsidised water has spurred people (and farmers in particular) to overuse it. Tom Power, an economist at the University of Montana, says projects like the LCRWS are "nuts. The last thing you want is federal subsidies for the consumption of resources, especially given the [water] scarcity we face across the West."
From this perspective, the long-term future is not more federal money, but less, to force farmers to start trading water with the towns. Those creaking pipes may yet be the beginning of a water revolution.
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