Ag Policy Blog

Reporting on the Ogallala Aquifer

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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We had a hard time coming up with a series title for our reports this week on the Ogallala aquifer. We went back and forth over various suggestions that implied waning waters, mining the aquifer or sustaining it. In the end, we came up with "Stretching the Ogallala."

Todd Neeley, Russ Quinn and Emily Garnett helped me work on various aspects of this series. The mission was pretty simple in every story: What is happening to the aquifer in Texas, Kansas and Nebraska? Those three states effectively account for 75% of the High Plains aquifer system by area. Also, what are farmers or local officials doing to manage their share of the water? The Ogallala aquifer is largely a non-renewable resource throughout most of the region.

The aquifer literally pumps economic life into the Southern Plains.

Collectively, the stories detail how each state takes a different perspective on managing the aquifer. In each state, there is generally consensus that conservation is the only way irrigated agriculture will continue to thrive throughout the Plains.

In Texas, conflicts continue over metering while decisions to conserve water are largely left to the individual. Farmers have the right to the water below their ground, yet conservation districts were created to specifically conserve water. Local districts and farmers are using USDA conservation programs to reduce irrigation.

In Kansas, farmers report their water usage to the state to avoid going over their allocations, but any effort to reduce annual allocations has to be a local decision done by consensus. State officials are doing what they can to encourage growing more drought-tolerant crops such as sorghum or summer fallow with winter wheat. Corn, however, remains a popular crop. At least some Kansas farmers have voluntarily lowered their irrigation allocations to an average of 11 inches a year per acre.

Nebraska generally has the widest and deepest area of the Ogallala. I've often said whoever drew the map that created Nebraska had no concept of what they had done. Nebraska has roughly 37% of the entire aquifer. To put it another way, 83% of Nebraska's land sets on top of the Ogallala. The Platte River system and sandy soils also provide Nebraska with recharge in the Ogallala that should make other states envious. Yet, in at least some locales, Natural Resource Districts not only have instituted well moratoriums, but also tighter restrictions. Some farmers in southwest Nebraska are restricted to an average of 9 inches a year per acre, largely because of surface-water compacts with Kansas.

While everyone struggles with the prospects of water restrictions, we know irrigation companies are booming. Some farmers have learned in a drought that irrigation can pay off quickly. More farmers both within and outside the Ogallala area who had never considered irrigation are looking at pivots. The industry is seeing more growth in the Eastern Corn Belt. Companies also note it's up to government to manage the water table, not the irrigation industry.

Communities within and outside the Ogallala area certainly have their own issues trying to manage water. Toby Dougherty, city manager of Hays, Kan., said at a drought meeting last month that his community has more in common with desert cities such as Phoenix or Las Vegas than Kansas City or Topeka. Hays has been under water conservation measures for more than 20 years and will soon further tighten water conservation in town. One of the problems plaguing Hays' well fields is more efficient irrigation equipment.

"You people in farming make a lot better use of water that falls on your ground," Dougherty said. "Less runs into waterways, less runs into creeks and less runs into our well field," Dougherty said. "It's a lot different world I live in when I'm trying to depend on that runoff."

Dougherty added that communities planning water needs in the Great Plains have bigger challenges ahead.

"When you couple climate change with the runoff going into the well field, I can't look at history and predict what's going to happen in 20 years."

I came across an EPA report on the long-term effects of climate change. Regarding the Ogallala, the report stated, "Warming and/or drying in the Great Plains may place greater demand on regional groundwater resources. Although the Ogallala aquifer has come under close scrutiny in the past, it is important to note that previous studies have not addressed potential climate change impacts on this resource. Many of the problems associated with intense groundwater use (water depletions, soil damage, altered rural and farm economics, and potential reversion to dryland farming) could be exacerbated by global warming. "

That report, "The Potential Effects of Global Climate Change on the United States," was written in 1989.

I can be found on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN.


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John Olson
8/25/2013 | 12:53 PM CDT
It is noteworthy that the man who figured out the periodic table also supported the abiotic theory of oil formation. Also noteworthy is the presence of methane through out the planet system where no biological activity is present. See
John Olson
8/23/2013 | 7:13 AM CDT
Irrigation is great where water resources are adequate and where water sources are being renewed. If you are against grocery lines Bonnie I would hope you are for eliminating the rfs and are not one of the corn ethanol promotion groupies. Then again perhaps you are not concerned about grocery lines in other countries and are for promoting the rfs agenda. No one is disputing that many energy sources have biological beginnings. Most people also recognize that energy sources can also come from non biological matter as due those who theorize that oil can be abiotic.
Bonnie Dukowitz
8/23/2013 | 6:39 AM CDT
Good article Chris. Some people grasp, manipulate and twist any article, information or comment in an attempt to promote an agenda. Has anyone ever thought that oil may be a result of climate change? Items which were once on the surface are being found thousands of feet underground. Some on the climate change agenda once were the global warmers. The two are different. I do not think I am aware of anyone denying "climate change". The desert S.W., like the Sahara Desert, have different boundaries than a thousand years ago. One needs to remember, if irrigation were halted, lines would form at the grocery store, waiting for grocerys from somewhere. Also, most cival wars have resulted from a shortage of food for the masses.
Aaron Cross
8/22/2013 | 4:41 PM CDT
Being from SW Kansas, I can say that our aquifers have been slowly receding throughout the last 50 years. Most of our area is dependent on the Arkansas river replenishing the aquifer. The problems we have stems from the fact that Colorado's John Martin reservoir has not been releasing an adequate amount of water to let the river flow through our state. If you are ever in Dodge City, KS you will notice that the river is dry. The growing population of people in the mountains are using more and more water thus they are releasing less and less water down stream to us. There have been multiple law suits between the state of Kansas and other states over this issue. Another factor is the amount of trees along the river. There used to be hardly any trees in the riverbed or that extended much further from the bank than 15-30 yard of the river. Now they grow all throughout the riverbed as well as along the river banks. While great for deer hunting, those adult trees will consume around 100 gallons of water per day during the summer. Multiply the number of extra trees by 100 gallons per day and you are looking at a very large number.
8/22/2013 | 10:00 AM CDT
Jay, I do have to interject. Yes, I am actually registered as a Republican, mainly because most of my local elections are settled in the GOP primary. However, I've been reporting on climate science for several years now. Most people believe I have bought into a global scientific hoax rather than being in the denier camp.
Timothy Gieseke
8/22/2013 | 8:50 AM CDT
This is the place to start, "The aquifer literally pumps economic life into the Southern Plains." In other economic terms, the aquifer is capital, or more precise, natural capital. If transactions or activities place no value on a capital that generates value, it can be considered an economic externality. Humans have had a good run with an economic system chock full of externalities. Its kind of like a party that generates no hangovers - no negative feedback of the consequences, except perhaps when your liver goes. A sobering moment is nearing. Our economic system will need to mature and begin to add these externalities into the economic system so that our mundane activities have the values incorporated into them. Agriculture is a good place to start as the soil and water natural capital is the basis for humanity. And one could guess that agriculture is the birthplace of the economic system. After a decade of applying various ecocommerce models with logical success, but with limited success in adding this ecological dimension to the economy, I discovered a new route; disruptive conservation. It is a take on the Innovator's Dilemma and disruptive innovation. It explains why established system's prevail past their prime and then fail big. We could cross the Ogallala off our accounting ledger sheet, and we most likely will, and survive just fine, but we cannot afford to cross off the renewable systems. The only way to maintain a positive balance sheet is to incorporate these values into the economic system and allow humans to actually understand the full value - not the price of cashing it in.
John Olson
8/22/2013 | 7:23 AM CDT
Jay - I won't address your false accusations. Regarding renewable abiotic oil see - or or or The abiotic theory has been around for a very long time. It certainly is more believable than the dinosaurs becoming oil fairy tale. Try educating yourself sometime Jay.
Jay Mcginnis
8/22/2013 | 5:37 AM CDT
Good one John, "oil is a renewable resource" right along with Obama is a Muslim, black helicopters, Obama's "war on (fill in the blank Rush)", Russian solders in major US cities, birtherism, climate change is good and all the other insanity of the right,,,, now we have Oil is renewable! Which of the Koche brothers dreamt that one up???
Jay Mcginnis
8/22/2013 | 5:28 AM CDT
Chris I don't understand your point here since Global climate change has been denounced by your party. Are you saying Dougherty's concern is real?
John Olson
8/21/2013 | 7:13 AM CDT
Using a nonrenewable resource (water Ogallala aquifer) to grow corn for ethanol when we have a renewable resource oil (see ) makes no sense. The Obama war on energy driving up the cost of energy for Americans is just another war against the poor driving still more people on food stamps and government dependency.