Vast, vital and vulnerable is the Ogallala Aquifer. Lying beneath eight U.S. states and encompassing more than 170,000 acres, the Ogallala is a sizeable and important water resource that has brought life to Kansans in both rural and urban areas. Not only is the aquifer used for production agriculture, but it also provides water for people’s homes and for other municipal uses. It’s no secret, however, that the Ogallala has been overused, and its depletion could pose a problem for everyone and the Kansas economy.
David Steward, a professor of civil engineering at Kansas State University, and a team of researchers recently completed a study that examined the future of the Ogallala Aquifer. The study found that if current usage of the aquifer continues, as much as 69 percent of it would be depleted by 2060.
Usage is exceeding the recharge of the aquifer, which is leading to its depletion. Steward said that natural recharge of the aquifer is currently supplying 15 percent of the pumping that’s going into the wells.
“What happens is that as you pump the well, the groundwater goes down, and the ability to extract the water decreases,” Steward said.
The Kansas Water Appropriation Act protects both the people's right to use Kansas water and the state's supplies of groundwater and surface water for the future. The law is administered by the Kansas Department of Agriculture's (KDA) Division of Water Resources, which issues permits for water usage. Every well used for irrigation, for more than two acres, or for municipal use must have a water permit. According to the KDA, water used solely for domestic purposes—for households, watering livestock on pasture, or watering up to two acres of your lawn or garden—does not need a permit. Steward said that currently there are about 66,000 water permit numbers in Kansas.
“Every one of those files has a water use report every year,” Steward said. “Most of those are metered, at least in western Kansas. It’s very accurate water data we have in terms of water use.”
The water data helps monitor use of the aquifer, which is what Steward used in his research to examine the changes in elevation levels of the wells.
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Some western Kansas farmers have taken measures to reduce water use to extend the life of the aquifer, said Scott Staggenborg, K-State adjunct professor of agronomy. But, it will take the efforts of all farmers and people living in cities to ensure the resource is available in the future. It’s possible that the aquifer could be pumped to the point that there’s no water available, which has happened in areas of the Texas High Plains and in northwest Kansas.
“We know there are some places that are more at risk than others, and some places are known to have a longer supply of several hundred years,” Staggenborg said. “There’s no doubt about it. We have to start sitting down and making serious decisions now about how we want to manage both agricultural water use, as well as water by everyone else. We need to quit viewing this as purely an agricultural issue and view it as a societal issue.”
Higher food costs and less water available for home use could be the result of a dried-up aquifer. Everyone needs water, Staggenborg said, but everyone needs to look beyond his or her front door and farm and understand that reduction has to happen everywhere. If that is realized now, it might prevent a financial fight that no one wants over water.
“I think what would happen before we pump it dry is industries and urban users are going to be willing to pay more money for that water, because it has a higher value to them than agriculture,” he said. “That’s one that I’m not sure people in agriculture have thought about as much.”
If that happens, he said, cattle and swine feeding operations and dairies might be forced to close, which would diminish the support industries around crop production.
“There’s an argument that we can bring corn in from other places in the United States and not worry about growing it locally to keep the livestock feeding and dairy operations going,” Staggenborg said. “What does that do to the person who sells seed, sells fertilizer, sells farm equipment, sells irrigation equipment? Those are big economic drivers to all of these communities in western Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska—all up through the aquifer. Those people need to be consulted as well, so that they can voice their concerns and the things that affect them, as well as have an understanding of the potential impact.”
Reducing irrigated forage could help save water, but it also might bring higher transportation and production costs, which could translate to higher food costs for consumers. The ripple effect could lead to people moving from the area, putting the western Kansas population at pre-1900s levels, Staggenborg said.
Steward explained more about his Ogallala Aquifer depletion study in a video interview, available on the K-State Research and Extension YouTube channel.
To find out more about water management and conservation practices for irrigation, as well as for urban uses for lawns and gardens, several K-State Research and Extension publications are available online.
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