Saving the Ogallala: A Sinking Feeling

If depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer continues at the current rate, the impact will be felt far beyond the High Plains and its farming communities.

By Jeff Caldwell | Photos By Charlie Riedel

Farmers on the U.S. High Plains have managed one of the great feats of modern agriculture—turning semi-arid prairies into some of the most productive land on the planet. Overcoming obstacles of less-than-ideal climate and soil, producers in the region have been significant players in efforts to push the world’s crop yields to new heights.

Now, however, farmers and others are concerned with the decrease in water remaining in the Ogallala Aquifer, a key resource for agriculture in the region. In our ongoing coverage of water-related issues, FarmLife takes a look at the state of the aquifer, what producers are doing to help stem its depletion and what it means to the rest of us.

In reporting on this story, as well as with our work on other related articles, we have discovered there are numerous efforts under way to conserve water—endeavors with positive results that apply to farming in many regions of North America. While the diminishing amount of water in the Ogallala is cause for alarm, there are certainly reasons to be hopeful. With this story, we wish to present both messages.

The Ogallala, or High Plains Aquifer, ranks as the largest such groundwater source in the U.S. Stretching from Texas and New Mexico to South Dakota and Wyoming, it underlies eight states and represents more than one-quarter of the nation’s entire irrigation water. In terms of agricultural output, it supplies an area that produces approximately one-fifth of the annual total of U.S. corn, wheat and cattle.

Ogallala Water Level Change Map

Download the Ogallala aquifer map: A closer look at depletion

Consequential to us all, if this vast underground lake continues to drain at the rate it has in recent decades, its impact will be felt nationally, even internationally, as well as in the High Plains farm communities it helps support. Indeed, there are many people worldwide who have taken part in the bounty these farms and ranches produce.

While farms and other agricultural operations are not the only users of Ogallala water, they do play an outsized role. Because of low average annual precipitation, it’s difficult for producers to support sustained agriculture at its current level without irrigation. That explains, in large part, why levels of the Ogallala were depleted by an estimated 300 feet in some areas since the 1940s. Even with some conservation measures in place, “losses to the aquifer between 2001 and 2011,” according to a 2014 report by the Texas Comptroller, “equated to a third of its cumulative depletion during the entire 20th century.”

At the current rate, some models predict the aquifer will be about 70% depleted within 50 years. In some regions, however, such as areas of western Kansas, the Ogallala is expected to go dry in 25 years or less.

“Too Many Straws in Too Small of a Cup”

That stark outlook has led a growing number of farmers to take steps to cut water use. Yet, at the same time, most hope to sustain the ag production that has been critical to the region’s economy.

“We see the importance of water in our communities and northwest Kansas,” says Brent Rogers, who farms in Kansas’ Sheridan and Graham counties, and serves on the board of directors for Kansas Groundwater Management District (GMD) 4. “The aquifer is over-appropriated. It’s too many straws in too small of a cup.”

Water from the Ogallala Aquifer used for Irrigation.

Water from the Ogallala Aquifer used for irrigation.

According to Rogers, however, change is not as easy as flipping a switch. “Going from spigot-on to spigot-off is not an option,” he says.

Recent analysis led by Yale University professor of forestry and environmental studies, Eli Fenichel, shows between 1996 and 2005, declining groundwater—and the resulting steps necessary to continue irrigating from the aquifer—cost the Kansas agriculture industry and farmers $110 million each year.

Fenichel’s study, which was published in the March 2016 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS), showed that annual loss is based largely on ag production capacity, efforts to sustain irrigation supplies, and overall ag land and related asset values. “This annual loss in wealth is approximately equal to the state’s 2005 budget surplus, and is substantially more than investments in schools over this period,” Fenichel notes in the report.

A Widely Variable Resource

Reducing irrigation use is an obvious strategy to sustain the Ogallala Aquifer. Yet, variation in groundwater and surface water from year to year in different regions of the state means determining how much to cut back irrigation isn’t all that simple, especially while farmers hope to attempt to sustain hard-won ag productivity.

“The deposits forming the foundation of much of the Ogallala Aquifer are variable, have different depths, different characteristics, and those deposits have been filled over time with natural recharge,” says Kansas State University water resources and civil engineer David Steward.

Adds Rogers: “The public views it as a gigantic swimming pool, and it’s the same from Nebraska to Texas.” In reality, though, Rogers says, “there might be water 280 feet deep under my house, and there might be nothing a quarter-mile from the house.”

This kind of variability makes controlling water use a tough task. “When you start talking about cutbacks, you don’t want to cut based only on acre-feet alone. You need to cut back based on what people are physically pumping,” Rogers says. In other words, cutbacks need to be based not just on use alone, but on other variables like irrigation withdrawal as a percentage of overall supply and availability at each individual well. “It’s not an easy cat to skin. There’s so much variability in the aquifer.”

Taking Action

The monstrous task of adequately cutting irrigation water use to sustain the Ogallala Aquifer starts with first knowing exactly how much water is there. Measuring that water is aided greatly by technology, as well as government incentives that help farmers afford those new technologies.

Rogers is working with other farmers and leaders in his groundwater management district to apply water probe technology on a wider scale to first track water use, then implement practical conservation measures that can cut usage, while attempting to maintain crop output. Through a combination of federal cost incentives like USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), farmers have started retiring unused or outdated irrigation wells and better monitoring those still in production to find where they can make cuts.

“We saw the value of water probes and started funding them. They will save you water. We went through our GMD members and said, ‘Hey, we will fund up to $1,000 per probe,’” says Rogers, whose GMD4 covers three full counties and part of seven others in northwest Kansas. Farmers have started to respond, with more than 100 new probes installed in the last year alone.

District-level initiatives like these, at least in Kansas, are voluntary, but Rogers says participation is rising. Continuing to employ the latest water-monitoring technology—things like automatic controls for center pivot systems that can better match what’s applied to what’s available—will help farmers become more surgical with their water applications and replace what for many is a generations-old mindset.

“The biggest problem with water use is peer pressure to grow as much as we can. If I go to work in the morning and see the neighbor’s pivot running, I think I need to be watering,” Rogers says. “We feel if we can save an inch on every well, we can start to stop the problem. We just have to get people to do it. We’re doing what we can to be proactive.”

Time and Technology

Initiatives and changing mindsets like those in Rogers’ GMD4 area of Kansas are making a difference, albeit a small one. Yet new technologies and approaches to water usage may hopefully one day solve the problem of dwindling water resources, or at least buy more time.

“By saving water today, you’re also providing more time for the people who develop the crop irrigation and genetics technologies involved in increasing water-use efficiency,” says K-State’s Steward. Already, he says, crop genetic improvements are adding to water-use efficiency at around 2% per year.

“Water probes, variable-rate technology, gene shuffling, crop drought genes … these are all just pieces of the puzzle that we need. They’re just tickling the cusp of what’s coming,” Rogers says. “It’s going to work if we can all just stay on the horse.”

One critical piece of that puzzle, as the industry brings along the technology necessary to sustain the Ogallala Aquifer’s water supply, will be the likelihood of lower crop yields. However, those cuts, say many in the know, will pale in overall ecological and economic impact to the benefits of maintaining a water supply in the long run.

“If you reduce the water use by 20% today, it basically takes the yields back to where they were 15 years ago in terms of crop production. But it moves peak agriculture production from about 2040 to 2070, so it pushes the impact of lower water use into the future,” Steward says.

“This should give people hope that the future is not foretold, and that there is the capacity to make changes. I think what we are seeing is people working together and actively trying to figure out how to manage the resource from the standpoint of maintaining an economic livelihood not just today, but sustaining it into the future.”

Water Pressure

  • Some models predict the Ogallala will be about 70% depleted within 50 years.
  • In regions like west Kansas, the Ogallala is expected to go dry in 25 years or less.
  • The Ogallala underlies eight states and represents more than one-quarter of the nation’s entire irrigation water.
  • In terms of agricultural output, the Ogallala supplies an area that produces approximately one-fifth of the annual total of U.S. corn, wheat and cattle.
  • Since the 1940s, levels of the Ogallala were depleted by an estimated 300 feet in some areas. Losses to the aquifer between 2001 and 2011 equated to a third of its cumulative depletion during the entire 20th century.