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5 things to know about groundwater depletion in Oklahoma's panhandle

An industrial hog farm outside of Guymon on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Ben Felder
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
An industrial hog farm outside of Guymon on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.

The Oklahoma panhandle is running out of water from the Ogallala Aquifer, and the industrial hog industry is largely to blame. Groundwater is used to grow crops for feed, raise hogs and process pork.

However, Investigate Midwest found that the state’s weak water laws make the problem difficult to track and even harder to solve.

Here are five major takeaways from this story:

State water officials have long warned of the Ogallala Aquifer’s decline. Access to the aquifer significantly increased in the 1950s but state officials quickly cautioned that the groundwater could one day run out. A 1975 Oklahoma Water Resources Board study warned, "a sizable deficit (will) appear by the year 2030 based on the present knowledge of the region’s resources.”

The rate of groundwater depletion in the panhandle increased once Seaboard Foods opened its pork processing plant in 1995. According to water usage permits on file with the state, the hog industry, as a whole, is permitted to use more than 100 million gallons of groundwater each hour across the panhandle to raise pigs, harvest crops — most for feed — and process the pork. Since the Guymon plant opened and related business tied to crop production significantly increased, water levels have dropped by 23%, two-and-a-half times faster than the 30 years prior.

Oklahoma considers groundwater a personal property right. While limits exist on how much groundwater a well owner can use each year, the state does not require owners to prove their usage. Earlier this year, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt vetoed a bill that would have required meters on groundwater wells to help the state enforce limits.

Seaboard recognized water levels as a problem. The company has taken steps to reduce water usage on its own farms and protested groundwater use by an oil and gas company in 2018, stating in a letter to the state that “Seaboard is concerned about waste by depletion of the groundwater supply.”

Some view conservation as the best way forward. One state program incentivizes farmers to meter their wells voluntarily and increase their use of technology in an effort to water more efficiently. However, according to a recent survey by Oklahoma State University, nearly 90% of producers said they still water their crops based primarily on visual appearance.

Seaboard Foods provided Investigate Midwest with the following statement:

“Seaboard Foods is committed to environmental stewardship, including responsible water use, across the communities in which we operate.

“When Seaboard Foods purchases existing farms, as we recently did in Oklahoma, we rely on the water rights the prior owner used. When we build new livestock farms, we purchase existing groundwater rights to withdraw water through existing or new wells. In this regard, we typically purchase irrigation water rights and then work with state water authorities to transfer ownership and convert authorized use for those rights to livestock operations. The transfer and conversion almost always result in a reduction of the quantity of water authorized to be used annually. We rarely seek permits to withdraw additional, previously unpermitted groundwater from the aquifer relevant to the location of the farm.

“For the pork processing operations at the company’s plant in Guymon, Seaboard Foods uses and pays for its water from the City of Guymon.

“Preserving precious natural resources, like water, is important to us. Across all our company-owned operations, we employ technologies and practices to closely monitor and conserve water. We maintain good relations with water authorities and cooperate fully to ensure compliance with law. We work with our trade industry and other organizations to monitor developments in water law.”

Investigate Midwest is an independent, nonprofit newsroom. Our mission is to serve the public interest by exposing dangerous and costly practices of influential agricultural corporations and institutions through in-depth and data-driven investigative journalism. Visit us online at  www.investigatemidwest.org

Ben Felder covers agribusiness and the meat industry in Oklahoma for Investigate Midwest.
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