2010 President's Report

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Can we sustain clear water resources that are being depleted? OUR IDEAS DON’T JUST HOLD WATER. THEY PRESERVE IT 				FOR GENERATIONS.

It’s hard to believe. The High Plains Aquifer is a vast underground system of natural water storage that spans eight states and supports nearly a third of the irrigated land in the United States. But this seemingly limitless water supply is shrinking.

That’s why Michigan State University, with the support of a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is doing the groundwork necessary to help create a sustainable plan for managing this vital resource. David Hyndman, professor and chairperson in the Department of Geological Sciences, is leading the four-year project involving an interdisciplinary team of MSU hydrogeologists, geographers, economists, and sociologists and a team from the Kansas Geological Survey.

Deep underground, the massive aquifer stretches from South Dakota to Texas—with smaller portions reaching into Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming—and supports the extensive agriculture production of the Great Plains.

In addition to irrigating fields, the aquifer is essential to the drinking water supply as well as major industries, including meat and dairy. And the demands on the system are growing.

“It’s an intensively used system,” says Hyndman. “If current pumping levels are maintained, some parts of the aquifer could be depleted in 20 years.”

As changes in climate extend growing seasons, the need for water increases. That means water for food crops as well as for crops grown for biofuels production, which consume an increasing amount of the aquifer’s resources.

“There are already issues with how we’ll feed the growing population,” says Hyndman. “A few degrees of climate change can bring huge consequences.”

Using the mountain of available data, the team will reconstruct the aquifer’s history and test solutions based on their predictions and impact assessments to determine viable solutions for the future.

“We try to understand everything about the past to better manage these resources,” says Hyndman. “We can go back in time to the 1930s and model what happened during the dust bowl. We can also look at scenarios like the energy price spikes of the 1970s and see how that changed our use of irrigation.”

And while the work is being done to address the crisis in the High Plains Aquifer, Hyndman says the findings and recommendations could help other parts of the nation and world facing similar circumstances.

This critical work will provide community and government leaders with information that will enable them to adjust land management policies and to make strides toward sustainable water-use practices. That will help keep the water flowing for generations of crops, livestock, and people to come.

For more information:

David Hyndman

College of Natural Science

National Science Foundation

This research is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Water Sustainability and Climate program.