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Journal Article

Peak grain forecasts for the U.S. High Plains amid withering waters

Authors: Mrad A et al.


Irrigated agriculture contributes 40% of total global food production. In the US High Plains, which produces more than 50 million tons per year of grain, as much as 90% of irrigation originates from groundwater resources, including the Ogallala aquifer. In parts of the High Plains, groundwater resources are being depleted so rapidly that they are considered nonrenewable, compromising food security. When groundwater becomes scarce, groundwater withdrawals peak, causing a subsequent peak in crop production. Previous descriptions of finite natural resource depletion have utilized the Hubbert curve. By coupling the dynamics of groundwater pumping, recharge, and crop production, Hubbert-like curves emerge, responding to the linked variations in groundwater pumping and grain production. On a state level, this approach predicted when groundwater withdrawal and grain production peaked and the lag between them. The lags increased with the adoption of efficient irrigation practices and higher recharge rates. Results indicate that, in Texas, withdrawals peaked in 1966, followed by a peak in grain production 9 y later. After better irrigation technologies were adopted, the lag increased to 15 y from 1997 to 2012. In Kansas, where these technologies were employed concurrently with the rise of irrigated grain production, this lag was predicted to be 24 y starting in 1994. In Nebraska, grain production is projected to continue rising through 2050 because of high recharge rates. While Texas and Nebraska had equal irrigated output in 1975, by 2050, it is projected that Nebraska will have almost 10 times the groundwater-based production of Texas.


Rapid groundwater depletion represents a significant threat to food and water security because groundwater supplies more than 20% of global water use, especially for crop irrigation. A large swath of the US High Plains, which produces more than 50 million tons of grain yearly, depends on the Ogallala aquifer for more than 90% of its irrigation needs. A predator-prey-type model serves as a minimalist representation of groundwater use-crop production dynamics. It explains and predicts reductions in groundwater withdrawal on three High Plains states and subsequent declines in irrigated crop production. The model shows how recharge rates and the adoption of irrigation technologies control these trends. It also provides a general framework for assessing groundwater-based irrigation sustainability.

Journal Name
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA
Publication Date