If the Aquifers Dry Up? A New Question for Human Dignity

Though it has yet to make major nightly news, the High Plains aquifer - which runs underneath eight states from South Dakota to Texas - is drying up. Also known as the Ogallala, the aquifer provides about 30 percent of the nation’s irrigated groundwater, and scientists at Kansas State University have determined that it is shrinking rapidly. In the next five decades, we could use up to 69 percent of the water. According to the NBC news report, the researchers say it could take 500 to 1,300 years to replenish the aquifer after our irrigation patterns have drained it.

The Huffington Post also picked up on the story of the Ogallala aquifer from the perspective of farmers in Kansas determining a water ban in order to keep the aquifer working. The article says, “The state of Kansas didn’t order the cuts, nor did a regional entity. Rather, at a time when states and locals are jockeying for water, stakeholders in the 100 square-mile “high priority” (meaning particularly parched) zone of Northwest Kansas Groundwater District 4 reached a consensus to reduce groundwater pumping by 20 percent over the next five years. They are gambling on short-term wants for a longer-term need — to preserve the aquifer their lives depend upon.”

The article goes on, “But it has been rapid growth — more crops, cattle, industry and people — that has so stressed the Ogallala over the decades. What’s more, the expansion of oil and gas drilling throughout the region, spurred by the advent of water-intensive hydraulic fracturing, has brought new challenges. The drilling process, which can use up millions of gallons of chemical-laced water per well, has stirred angst among some farmers. They worry about increased competition and the reality that fracked water can rarely be reused.”

We know a lot about humans and our tricky relationship with the environment. We know that we haven’t used it well, that there are massive problems with the way we deplete the earth’s resources without a way to replenish them (not to mention, our growing population concerns). As we at Shared Justice have wondered this fall about the implications of human dignity for issues such as care for the elderly or disabled, education or poverty, biotechnology, prison systems - I want us to turn our attention to the Ogallala Aquifer. Perhaps more basically, I want us to think about how human dignity requires our care for the earth.

A windmill at Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge pumps water from the Ogallala Aquifer. Photo via panoramio.org

A windmill at Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge pumps water from the Ogallala Aquifer. Photo via panoramio.org

In the conversation about environmental stewardship, we highlight the creation. And rightly so - we remind ourselves and each other that the earth is valuable and our treatment of it must be in accordance with that value. We justify our call to action most often by the grave consequences of inaction. With the Ogallala, this is the vast implications for our major crop-growing region, the livelihoods and the health and well being of populations across eight states. A sense of public responsibility and justice should push us along this line of thinking.

But how often do we hear about this in terms of our own identity? In terms of living fully into what it means to be human? If indeed Adam was given the world to tend and care for in Genesis, then a part of our nature and our identity is bound up in how we care for the earth. I think it is important to consider our environmental stewardship, not only from the perspective of the valuable creation, but also from one that says it is imperative to care for the earth because that is a part of our created nature. If human dignity is about how we have been created in God’s image, then we must pay attention to both His love of and approval of the creation as “very good” and His distinct command to work it and care for it.

The idea that humans are intended to have a relationship with Earth beyond mere use of Earth comes from this notion of our purpose as stewards. Part of the difficulty of modern technology is the development of a worldview of usefulness: oil is a tool, water is a tool, and all the way to other humans and their human capital are tools to be used. We pushed the irrigation of the Ogallala aquifer in light of this same worldview: we needed water for our economic development, and so we irrigated without full knowledge of the ramifications and also without a full appreciation of our responsibility to the resource. Certainly Scripture suggests that Creation is useful for mankind (cf. Genesis 1.29), but before God gives it to Adam as food, he saw it (the Creation) as good. The goodness of Creation is foundationally in God’s creative act; not the usefulness He gives it in the context of man’s creation. Similarly, our need to care for it doesn’t come just from our realization that its usefulness to us is diminishing, but because as part of our identity, we must.

Practically speaking, I’m not sure reconsidering environmental care in light of human dignity presses us towards new action. We will likely strive for the same policies, water bans, funding for renewable energy initiatives, that we did before. But I think it is nonetheless important to add to the philosophy behind environmental care. Who we are is caught up in how we care for the earth. Whether we believe that the Ogallala is the result of natural human economic growth or devastating overuse, we should be able to agree that from the beginning, we have been made stewards of the creation and therefore responsible for its well being. And this should give us a new vantage point from which we can view the High Plains aquifer - and the whole care of the earth which God called very good.

 -Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at http://thewildlove.wordpress.com and tweets at @hilarysherratt