Saving the Ogallala: A Sinking Feeling
-- Thought Leadership
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
“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.”
Read more about water and farming, including articles on water-management startups, aquifer recharge and how local legislation could provide farmers a better framework in which to conserve water, at http://www.myfarmlife.com/features/saving-ogallala-aquifer/.