Despite recent headlines of deadly flooding from San Antonio to Chicago, much of the mid- and southwest continues to face a second year of searing drought. This year’s most drought-stricken region sits on top of the Ogallala aquifer, the 174,000-square-mile well that has been geology’s gift to the nation’s breadbasket. It holds a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fresh water, some of which has been underground for six million years. Unfortunately, it is not inexhaustible, and what has taken nature 6,000 millennia to do, humans can undo in decades. And we have begun: the Ogallala’s water is already leaving at a faster rate than it is being replenished. This is not a new story. We have done it with oil, with topsoil, with the codfish. And yet here we are, 7 billion of us, living longer, growing bigger, getting richer (at least in the aggregate). The enviro-radical Cassandras keep prophesying doom, but the human race keeps trucking forward. We discover new oil, apply more fertilizer, farm fish, desalinate the oceans. We have faith that our next technological fix will come before the last one expires – such as Monsanto’s imminent launching of a genetically modified drought-resistant corn – and the plan to run the Keystone pipeline, which will carry the world’s dirtiest oil, over the Ogallala aquifer, which holds the earth’s cleanest water, is no cause for concern.
So why are we uneasy? Is it because we know we can’t go on like this forever and worry that the price of progress is our great-grandchildren?