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Seaboard Foods rebuilt Oklahoma panhandle's economy, ushering in new era of groundwater depletion

The entrance to Seaboard's Guymon pork processing plant on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Ben Felder
/
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
The entrance to Seaboard's Guymon pork processing plant on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.

Key takeaways

  • Groundwater levels in the panhandle have been declining for decades but depleted at a quicker rate after the opening of Seaboard's pork processing plant.
  • State water laws have aided the depletion as well users don't have to prove how much water they use each year.
  • City officials in Guymon say groundwater levels are reaching a crisis stage and they worry about the region's future.

Mike Shannon’s city hall office is a “war room” for water. Maps of wells and charts of usage rates cover the beige room's meeting table and desk. A large television screen mounted on the wall displays satellite images of a future groundwater well project. Coworkers visit throughout the day, often to talk about those plans to pump more water.

As city manager of Guymon — a town of about 13,000 in the state’s panhandle — Shannon oversees a network of 17 groundwater wells, all operating near capacity to draw water from the Ogallala Aquifer, the only water source in this arid region of tumbleweeds and sand dunes.

“Getting a call about (a broken well) in the middle of the night is what I fear most,” said Shannon, who has cropped gray hair, wears black-rimmed glasses and speaks with the hint of a western drawl. “If just one well broke or had to be shut off for repairs, it could cripple the entire system.”

Driving down Main Street in his white Chevy Traverse, Shannon is commonly on the lookout for wasted water. The high school’s plush green football field makes him shake his head, and he once threatened an out-of-state bank CEO with a citation when a local branch’s sprinkler system kept leaking water into the street.

Last year, Shannon and his staff decided to contact the city’s most significant water users and ask if they could do anything to cut back voluntarily.

Mike Shannon, interim city manager of Guymon
City of Guymon
Mike Shannon, interim city manager of Guymon

At the top of the list was Seaboard, a pork processing plant on the north side of town that slaughtered around 22,000 hogs daily. The plant used 3,500 gallons of water a minute, three times the amount used by all the homes in Guymon combined.

“I called them up and asked if there was anything they could do to save water because we are at a point where every drop counts,” Shannon recalled. “The next month, they dropped to less than 1,800 (gallons a minute). I never asked what they did.”

Seaboard’s presence in the state’s panhandle has created thousands of jobs and transformed Guymon into the bustling economic hub for this corner of the high plains. The area has also become critical for the pork operations of the Seaboard Corporation, a $9.65 billion a year agriculture company based in Merriam, Kansas, that started with a flour mill in 1918.

But Oklahoma’s weak water laws have allowed Seaboard and the hog industry to easily tap into the aquifer with almost no enforcement of existing limits, which is worsening a groundwater crisis and raising questions about the region’s ability to remain a significant agriculture center in the near future.

Since Seaboard Foods opened its pork processing plant in 1995, groundwater levels in the three-county panhandle region have dropped by 23%, a rate two-and-a-half times faster than the 30 years before the plant opened, according to Investigate Midwest’s analysis of state and federal well data.

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.

Seaboard Foods said it closely monitors the water usage of its plant and company-owned hog farms and is in compliance with state laws.

“Preserving precious natural resources, like water, is important to us,” said David Eaheart, a spokesperson for Seaboard.

But the company also has tried to prevent other industries from accessing groundwater, writing to state officials in a 2018 letter that it has had to cut back its own crop production due to water shortages.

Seaboard would not answer questions about how groundwater depletion has impacted its future plans, and there is no evidence the company has considered relocating. However, Guymon city officials recently published a study on the company’s economic impact as part of a pitch to invest in new water wells.

Because the state’s panhandle is such a small area, even a minimal geographic shift in animal or crop production due to a lack of water could significantly impact Oklahoma’s economy.

“We just don't have the water to raise a good corn crop for much longer around here,” Shannon said. “I mean, we do have it right now, but man, it's leaving us fast.”

The panhandle region, which already sits just beyond the reach of the Gulf of Mexico’s moist air stream, is becoming hotter and drier, increasing the water demand to produce crops and care for hogs.

Oklahoma’s panhandle saw the most significant temperature increase in the state over the last five years due to climate change, which the Environmental Protection Agency said will intensify droughts in the coming years.

Even when it rains in northwest Oklahoma, new water isn’t seeping into the ground to replenish the aquifer. “The Ogallala is like a savings account that allows for withdrawals but no deposits,” wrote Oklahoma State University professors in a 2017 study on droughts and the impact on state aquifers.

Dropping groundwater levels have forced many farmers to drill deeper into the ground, which costs more money in energy costs.

Brian Nelson had grown 20 circles of corn annually for more than two decades, selling it primarily for animal feed. But in 2022, he transitioned much of his crop to milo, which requires a third of the water as corn, he said.

Since 2010, the groundwater level for one of Nelson’s wells went from 225 feet to 286 feet, according to monitoring records he submitted to the state. Building a new line that could go deeper into the ground cost him $5,700 last year, according to an invoice he showed Investigate Midwest.

“I make less money (from milo), but I also have less water to work with,” Nelson said. “It costs more money the (deeper) … I have to go into the ground.”

Costs could also rise for nonfarmers as those living in towns and cities face higher water bills. The city of Guymon is planning to drill four new wells this year, and Shannon said the project could increase resident water bills by as much as 60%.

Farmers, city officials, business leaders and lawmakers acknowledge Seaboard’s role in depleting water levels, but most say the region’s economy would be devastated without a robust hog industry.

“Seaboard takes a lot of water, but if we didn’t have the feedstuff to feed the million-plus pigs, Seaboard would not be there and Guymon would dry up and blow away, as with the rest of the panhandle,” said Oklahoma Sen. Casey Murdock, a Republican whose district includes the entire panhandle region.

Murdock said he regularly hears about groundwater depletion from area farmers and ranchers. Still, he opposed multiple bills this year requiring metering or other water measuring devices on all agriculture wells.

Meters would give the state accurate data on water usage, helping Oklahoma’s top water agency enforce the existing limit of around 650,000 gallons a year for each acre a well owner has.

“There has never been a fine issued for overuse (in Oklahoma),” said Sen. Brent Howard, a Republican from southwest Oklahoma, who co-authored a metering bill.

Murdock and others who oppose the bill said meters could cost a well owner as much as $2,500.

But beyond the expense, Murdock said he was fundamentally opposed to limiting water use, especially since the state considers groundwater a personal property right, similar to oil and natural gas, industries that decades ago spurred a culture of underground exploration designed to extract as much as possible.

“It’s hard to go in there and take somebody’s property rights away from them,” Murdock said. “I can’t do it; I’m not going to do it.”

A photo in the 2001 Centennial Edition of Guymon Area History documents the groundbreaking of Seaboard Foods. Taken on Tuesday, August 10, 2021.
Madison McVan
/
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
A photo in the 2001 Centennial Edition of Guymon Area History documents the groundbreaking of Seaboard Foods. Taken on Tuesday, August 10, 2021.

‘We’re going to be sunk’

When Seaboard opened its Guymon plant in the winter of 1995, many saw it as a moment of pride in a region that had experienced its share of hardship.

“It’s going to bring more people back to the panhandle than the Dust Bowl ran off,” said Jess Nelson, Guymon’s mayor when Seaboard opened, referring to the 1930s dust storm and drought that saw the panhandle’s population drop by 30% and many farmers migrated west. “Things have never been so booming. It's just unreal.”

The plant did attract thousands of people to the panhandle as it initially employed 1,160 workers. Today the plant employs nearly 2,500 people, almost half of the entire Seaboard Foods workforce.

In the 20 years since the plant opened, Guymon’s population increased by 50% and the panhandle’s population nearly returned to pre-Dust Bowl levels.

With tax revenue from the plant and other related businesses, the local county government opened a new jail and health department building. New schools and roads were built.

Before Seaboard, the last major growth spurt in the Oklahoma panhandle happened 40 years earlier when new pumping technology unlocked unfettered access to the Ogallala Aquifer.

A 1954 study by Oklahoma geologist Stuart Schoff revealed vast amounts of underground water, which he likened to the discovery of oil. Expanded access to the Ogallala Aquifer could spark a new economic era, this one built around industrial farming and ranching, Schoff claimed.

But Schoff presented his report with a warning: Farmers would soon start taking out more water than the aquifer could naturally replenish. “The supply is neither unlimited nor inexhaustible,” he told The Oklahoman newspaper in 1954.

Twenty years later, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board completed its own water study and found Schoff’s predictions were coming true.

“A sizable deficit (will) appear by the year 2030 based on the present knowledge of the region’s resources,” the 1975 report stated about Oklahoma’s access to the Ogallala Aquifer. “Presently, more groundwater is being removed than is being replaced by natural recharge.”

By the early 1980s, the state’s water agency proposed a canal and pipeline network to transport water from eastern Oklahoma to the west. Agency leaders said it was the only way to ensure a consistent future water supply; lawmakers balked at the $15 billion price tag.

A decade later, when Seaboard announced it had selected Guymon for its new facility, some worried its presence would finally pump the declining aquifer dry.

"This aquifer is what they call a nearly finite source of water," VaLois Ramon, a member of a local grassroots environmental organization, told reporters at Seaboard’s opening. “When you're pulling (the water) out, what's going to happen? You're going to empty it, and we're going to be sunk."

But those concerns were outweighed by the promise of economic growth, which most residents were eager to see. In 1992, 81% of Guymon voters approved a new 1-cent sales tax to fund incentives for Seaboard to build its new plant.

Today, Seaboard’s economic impact is even more apparent as a vibrant immigrant community working at the plant has brought new restaurants and grocery stores. Several full-service hotels have opened for the influx of business travelers, and the city is widening a major road connecting downtown with Seaboard’s plant, a route that has seen a significant increase in traffic in recent years.

Beyond Guymon’s city limits, Seaboard also transformed the region’s agricultural sector into one dominated by hogs.

According to USDA census figures, around 36,000 hogs were sold in the three-county region in 1992. Five years later, after Seaboard opened, more than 1.5 million hogs were sold annually. Today, more than 3.4 million hogs are sold each year and Seaboard is the nation’s third-largest pork producer.

Seaboard said its company-owned hog farms hadn’t increased the allotted water use of the Ogallala Aquifer because it purchased existing water rights. The company appears to be obeying local water limits at its company farms.

“When Seaboard Foods purchases existing farms, as we recently did in Oklahoma, we rely on the water rights the prior owner used,” said Eaheart, the company's spokesperson. “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.

“We rarely seek permits to withdraw additional, previously unpermitted groundwater from the aquifer relevant to the location of the farm.”

According to the company's financial reports, Seaboard’s hogs require nearly 2 million tons of corn, sorghum and wheat annually for feed.

Eaheart said the majority of its grain for feed comes from out of state.

“While we do not manage cropland to grow grain, the majority of our grain for our feed is purchased directly from regional farmers in southwest Kansas, with only 12.5 percent coming from the Oklahoma panhandle annually,” Eaheart said.

However, the demand for feed did lead to new crop farms in Oklahoma that sold their grain to Seaboard, which required new water rights.

In the early 1990s, the state received around 80 groundwater permit applications annually. Applications nearly doubled in 1994 when Seaboard announced its new plant. By the late 1990s, the state received almost 180 applications a year, three times the number before Seaboard arrived.

According to state water records, more than 3,200 water permits had been issued in the three counties of the panhandle by 1998, more than double the number from the 1980s. Today, more than 5,420 permits are in use.

While Oklahoma does limit the amount of water a well owner can pump each year, state officials said the growth following Seaboard was aided by a lack of enforcement.

In Oklahoma, groundwater users in the Ogallala Aquifer are limited to 2 feet of water per acre each year, which is around 650,000 gallons. (Each “acre-foot” refers to the amount of water it would take to fill an entire acre of land with water 1 foot deep.)

Well owners submit their usage amounts annually to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, but there are no requirements to cite a specific meter or prove they used what they claimed.

State water officials and irrigators openly admit many usage reports aren’t accurate.

“It has been pretty hands-off,” Julie Cunningham, executive director of the OWRB, said about enforcement. “The law says you report your water use and you estimate that ... but you don’t have to tell us how you do it.”

‘That would be a dark future for Guymon’

When an oil company applied with the state in 2018 to drill a new water well in northwest Oklahoma, Seaboard objected, calling the application “unreasonable.”

Seaboard Foods on Monday, August 9, 2021.
Madison McVan
/
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
Seaboard Foods on Monday, August 9, 2021.

In its protest letter to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, Seaboard’s attorney argued water levels were already declining in the region and couldn’t support more pumping.

“We have had to curtail crop irrigation in summer months to assure sufficient water to sustain our animals,” wrote Jennifer Nelson, Seaboard’s general counsel, according to a copy of the letter that Investigate Midwest received through an open records request. “Seaboard is concerned about waste by depletion of the groundwater supply.”

The state eventually allowed the oil company to proceed with its groundwater well, but the letter highlighted Seaboard’s concerns with water availability and its willingness to advocate against additional use by other industries.

The letter also revealed Seaboard had taken some steps to reduce water usage.

Seaboard didn’t answer direct questions about whether it’s concerned about water availability in the future, but the company has identified water conservation as a goal.

The company recently launched an advanced artificial insemination program, which collects boar semen to breed sows. “This ultimately decreases the number of boars needed … decreasing the amount of feed needed and conserving acreage and water necessary to grow that feed,” a 2021 company report stated.

Seaboard also didn’t answer direct questions about whether water depletion has caused the company to reevaluate its presence in Oklahoma. But city officials in Guymon have openly worried about the possibility.

Shannon, Guymon’s city manager, had his staff compile a report last year on Seaboard’s economic impact on the town, part of his effort to promote an $8 million project to drill new wells. It’s a high cost for a city of Guymon’s size, but Shannon said if Seaboard could no longer rely on the city’s water system, it could cause the company to look elsewhere.

“That would be a dark future for Guymon,” Shannon said.

The economic study showed Seaboard currently employs 60% of the city's workforce.

According to the report, the company also donated more than $900,000 to local charities in 2021.

But recent expansion efforts by Seaboard don’t indicate a belief that water will run out soon.

Last year, Seaboard was approved to open two new farms in Kansas within 100 miles of its Guymon plant and above the Ogallala Aquifer.

However, the company has faced some limitations in accessing water for new farms, including in 2006 when Oklahoma’s water agency denied a groundwater permit on a proposed Seaboard hog farm because it was too close to a church, violating the state’s ban on hog farms being within three miles of recreational activities hosted by nonprofits.

The company then purchased land in Kansas and planned to pipe 800 gallons of groundwater a minute to its Oklahoma farm. The state said the plan still violated the law.

Oklahoma Panhandle State University sits on 120 acres in Goodwell, OK. The university is designated as a Federal Hispanic Serving Institution as more than 25% of its students identify as Hispanic or Latino.
Anna Pope
/
KOSU
Oklahoma Panhandle State University sits on 120 acres in Goodwell, OK. The university is designated as a Federal Hispanic Serving Institution as more than 25% of its students identify as Hispanic or Latino.

‘I mean, it sounds crazy’

A few dozen farmers and ranchers filed into the student union at Panhandle State University, most dressed in jeans and ball caps, indicating some had come straight from their crop fields. Sitting in metal folding chairs, they looked skeptically at the men and women who had driven nearly five hours from Oklahoma City, officials with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board dressed in slacks and collared shirts.

The state's new decennial water plan was being developed and the process included a series of town halls across the state. Similar gatherings in eastern Oklahoma sparked discussions about water pollution in the many rivers and streams that cross that part of the state. But in the panhandle during this Dec. 5 meeting, the topic was groundwater and its depletion.

State-hired consultants asked the farmers about their experience pumping groundwater. Many acknowledged the problem and worried aloud about the future their children and grandchildren would inherit. (A 2023 survey by the Ogallala Aquifer Summit found that 60% of producers in the Oklahoma panhandle believe groundwater decline is a “serious problem.”)

Those at the town hall listened to various ideas floated by state officials, but many expressed concern about mandatory water well metering and other enforcement measures.

Some acknowledged that it was common practice to report 2-acre feet of water used annually—the state limit—even if they used more. One farmer said the state has no way to know if it’s accurate. Some of the state officials responded that they were aware of that fact.

Other farmers said it was also common to report using the maximum amount even if they hadn’t used that much because they feared the state would reduce the limit if it believed a farmer could get by with less.

Finally, one man asked a question likely on the minds of many in the room. The Oklahoma panhandle covers just a tiny part of the Ogallala Aquifer. Both Kansas and Nebraska pulled much more water from it. He asked, did it even matter what they did in Oklahoma?

“When you are pumping in Oklahoma, you are pumping from water that may not be connected with anything in Kansas or Texas,” responded Chris Neel, a geologist with the state. “It’s the same aquifer, but not one giant underground lake, so yeah, it matters.”

Some parts of the aquifer have declined faster than others and one well might run dry while another less than a mile away is still pumping water.

Because of this, Dean Edson, director of the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts, said local policies can affect groundwater levels.

Nebraska, which closely monitors groundwater use through a system of Natural Resources Districts, has largely halted significant declines. State groundwater levels have declined by less than a half percent from 1950 to 2017, according to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln study.

Each of the state’s 23 districts is represented by an elected board that oversees water permits and sets groundwater level targets for their community. If water levels are on pace to drop below those targets, a warning system and possible restrictions are activated.

“Information is sent out to producers with a warning that you are going below this (target) and if it drops to a certain level, there are allocation restrictions that go into place,” Edson said. “The producers then try to avoid that regulation and become a little more judicious in their water use.”

Nebraska can enforce strict water use restrictions because its laws treat groundwater as state property. “The state of Nebraska owns all of the water,” Edson said.

In Oklahoma, groundwater is a personal property right, and the original water laws established in the 1970s set limits focused on economic development, not conservation, Cunningham, director of the OWRB, told lawmakers during a hearing in 2023.

“(The law) presumes we are going to appropriate water in such a manner that the aquifer can decline,” Cunningham said at the hearing. “We can appropriate water to plan for a depletion of the aquifer within 20 years. I mean, it sounds crazy.”

The Oklahoma state capitol in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, February 7, 2024.
Ben Felder
/
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
The Oklahoma state capitol in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, February 7, 2024.

‘Why does the state keep approving these permits?’

Kenton Patzkowsky first visited the Oklahoma State Capitol nearly 15 years ago to discourage lawmakers from voting for a bill requiring meters on all groundwater wells.

A crop producer from the panhandle, Patzkowsky believed the state had no right to track his water usage and was willing to make the nearly five-hour drive to Oklahoma City. There, he scoffed at the manicured suburban lawns and lavish golf courses using sprinkler systems even on a rainy day.

“I was just a farmer going to visit the capitol to try and get that stopped, and we did,” Patzkowsky recalled about his lobbying trip with other area farmers.

Today, Patzkowsky works inside the state capitol building as a Republican member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, representing his panhandle community for nearly six years. However, as lawmakers have renewed debate over water meters and other limit reductions, Patzkowsky said he has started to adjust his thinking.

Patzkowsky said the state “probably needs to cut back on that 2 acres (a foot limit),” and he’s open to meters, which cost as much as $10,000 each 15 years ago when he was originally against them.

“Now we've got these digital meters on the new sprinklers. They're kind of expensive, they're about $2,000, but doable,” Patzkowsky said.

In March, Patzkowsky voted in favor of a bill requiring meters or another “measuring system” on water wells. The bill — House Bill 3194 — passed both the House and Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Kevin Stitt.

Like Murdock, the panhandle senator who opposed meters because water in Oklahoma is a private property right, Stitt said he was unwilling to restrict water usage.

“House Bill 3194 is government overreach at its finest,” Stitt said in his veto message. “While forcing water meters on Oklahomans may seem innocuous, it is undoubtedly a violation of private landowners’ rights and emboldens the government to continue down that path.”

Those against mandatory meters say voluntary conservation by farmers and ranchers is where the state’s focus should be.

The state has funded some conversation programs and incentivized farmers to meter their wells voluntarily. Sumit Sharma, a plant and soil sciences expert at Oklahoma State University, is pushing farmers to increase their use of technology, which he said can help them better understand when crops need water.

According to a survey conducted by OSU, nearly 90% of producers said they water their crops based primarily on visual appearance. But Sharma said soil moisture sensors can reveal a crop that looks dry might not need more water yet.

“Our farmers are pretty efficient with what they do, but there is always room for improvement,” Sharma said.

A 2018 study — the most recent by the University of Nebraska — found Oklahoma had one of the nation’s lowest adoption rates of underground soil moisture sensors. The national average was 12%, but Oklahoma was at 4.9%.

Today, Sharma said adoption is increasing, but convincing some farmers to invest in the new technology can still be challenging. The sensors can cost around $2,000 and are not easy to install.

“Some may just think they are not going to farm long enough to justify these adoptions,” Sharma said.

For nearly three years, OSU’s extension office has offered a master irrigator program for farmers to learn how to increase water efficiency. Of the 58 farmers who completed the four-day program, 17 purchased new soil moisture sensors with the $2,000 stipend the program offers.

However, agriculture officials say that efforts to encourage more conservation practices must consider the partisanship of climate change.

“Whether you are talking about the word ‘sustainability’ or ‘climate’ … they have turned into partisan loaded terms and you can shut some of our folk's ears off if you lead with some of that terminology,” Steve Thompson, senior director of public policy for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, told lawmakers during a hearing last September on groundwater depletion. “You talk about ‘resilience,’ I think that’s a great word, but I think that in a number of years that could turn into a loaded term, as well.”

In April, when the Oklahoma Water Resources Board’s town hall series returned to northwest Oklahoma, consultants told the farmers in attendance that conservation efforts seemed to be increasing, but water demand was also projected to rise in the coming years.

One woman shook her head and drew the attention of a consultant who asked her to share her thoughts.

“If the problem is so bad, why does the state keep approving these permits?” she asked.

Many in the room nodded their heads in agreement.

Shannon, the city manager of Guymon, said the fact that more water permits keep getting issued means depletion will continue. To ensure a future with water, “cities and businesses are having to look at how do you use less,” Shannon said.

Nearly 18 months after Seaboard cut the water usage at its Guymon facility by more than half, Shannon said the plant is still using less water.

“When I first asked them to cut back … they could have said, ‘Hey, screw you, we can go somewhere else where there is plenty of water,’ ” Shannon said. “But they are still conserving water … which shows me they are here to stay and we have to make it work.”


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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