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.

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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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