The 3rd Annual Colorado Global Health and Water Symposium is September 28

Ogallala aquifer: Study forecasts future water levels of crucial agricultural aquifer

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Here’s the release from Kansas State University:

If current irrigation trends continue, 69 percent of the groundwater stored in the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas will be depleted in 50 years. But immediately reducing water use could extend the aquifer’s lifetime and increase net agricultural production through the year 2110.

Those findings are part of a recently published study by David Steward, professor of civil engineering, and colleagues at Kansas State University. The study investigates the future availability of groundwater in the High Plains Aquifer — also called the Ogallala Aquifer — and how reducing use would affect cattle and crops. The aquifer supplies 30 percent of the nation’s irrigated groundwater and serves as the most agriculturally important irrigation in Kansas.

“Tapping unsustainable groundwater stores for agricultural production in the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas, projections to 2110” appears in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, or PNAS. The study took four years to complete and was funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Kansas State University’s Rural Transportation Institute.

“I think it’s generally understood that the groundwater levels are going down and that at some point in the future groundwater pumping rates are going to have to decrease,” Steward said. “However, there are lots of questions about how long the water will last, how long the aquifer will take to refill and what society can do.”

Steward conducted the study with Kansas State University’s Michael Apley, professor of clinical sciences and an expert in cattle production; Stephen Welch, professor of agronomy, who helped with a statistics method called bootstrapping; Scott Staggenborg, adjunct professor in agronomy who studies agricultural production methods; Paul Bruss, a 2011 master’s degree graduate in civil engineering; and Xiaoying Yang, a former postdoctoral research assistant who is now at Fudan University in China.

Using measurements of groundwater levels in the past and present day in those regions, Steward and colleagues developed a statistical model that projected groundwater declines in western Kansas for the next 100 years and the effect it will have to cattle and crops.

According to their model, researchers estimated that 3 percent of the aquifer’s water had been used by 1960. By 2010, 30 percent of the aquifer’s water had been tapped. An additional 39 percent of the aquifer’s reserve is projected to be used by 2060 — resulting in the loss of 69 percent of the aquifer’s groundwater given current use. Once depleted, the aquifer could take an average of 500-1,300 years to completely refill given current recharge rates, Steward said.

Although the High Plains Aquifer will continue declining, researchers anticipate even greater efficiencies in water use during the next 15-20 years.

“Society has been really smart about using water more efficiently, and it shows,” Steward said. “Water use efficiencies have increased by about 2 percent a year in Kansas, which means that every year we’re growing about 2 percent more crop for each unit of water. That’s happening because of increased irrigation technology, crop genetics and water management strategies.”

As a result, researchers anticipate that while peak water use will happen around 2025, western Kansas will see increased corn and cattle production until the year 2040. What happens past that time frame depends on what decisions are made about reducing the use of the aquifer’s water in the near future, Steward said.

The team conducted several hypothetical scenarios that reduced the current pumping rate by 20 percent, 40 percent, 60 percent and 80 percent. Steward said the researchers went as high as 80 percent because that closely aligned with the aquifer’s natural groundwater recharge rate of about 15 percent of current pumping.

“The main idea is that if we’re able to save water today, it will result in a substantial increase in the number of years that we will have irrigated agriculture in Kansas,” Steward said. “We’ll be able to get more crop in the future and more total crop production from each unit of water because those efficiencies are projected to increase in the future.”

Steward said he hoped the study helps support the current dialogue about decisions affecting how water can help build resiliency for agriculture in the future.

“We really wrote the paper for the family farmer who wants to pass his land on to his grandchildren knowing that they will have the same opportunities that farmers do today,” Steward said. “As a society, we have an opportunity to make some important decisions that will have consequences for future generations, who may or may not be limited by those decisions.”

From The Kansas City Star (Karen Dillon):

The life of the Ogallala Aquifer could be extended several decades, but only if water usage is reduced, a four-year study by researchers from Kansas State University found. “There is going to be agriculture production in Kansas and corn production and cattle production really for the foreseeable future,” David Steward, lead author of the study, said in an interview last week. But without conservation, he said, “the future is bleak.”

The aquifer yields 30 percent of the nation’s irrigated groundwater, the study said. It could last until 2110 or longer if farmers were to cut 20 percent of their usage or more beginning now. But that would reduce agriculture production to the levels of 15 or 20 years ago. Kansas alone pumped 1.3 trillion gallons in 2011, more than enough to fill Lake Okeechobee, the huge lake in Florida.

The study was done because there are a lot of questions about “how long can we pump and how long it will take to recharge the aquifer if depleted,” Steward said. The study determined it would “take in the neighborhood of 500 to 1,300 years to recharge the aquifer” in western Kansas, Steward said.

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here and here.

Drought news: August precipitation quiets Colorado Springs’ rate payers angst over water bills #COdrought

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From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Monica Mendoza):

During a hot, dry July, Springs residents were opening water bills that were double and triple their normal amount. Some complained to City Council, saying the watering restrictions coupled with a higher water rate if they used more than 2,000 cubic feet per month was hurting their lawns and their pocketbooks.

City councilors responded by changing the trigger point for higher water rates to 2,500 cubic feet per month. Mother Nature also lent a hand with 5.72 inches of rain in August, which is 2.38 inches above normal and made the month the sixth wettest on record, according to the National Weather Service.

So, the phone calls and emails to Colorado Springs Utilities decreased dramatically and city councilors have hardly heard a peep about water rates.

“I can’t say if it is the rain or the change in the extra cubic feet,” council member Joel Miller said.

But a month of rain doesn’t change the city’s overall water rates – among the highest in the state – or the water-savings goal, said Gary Bostrom, Utilities chief water services officer.

“The drought condition we are in is not expected to change,” he said.

And that, he said, has him concerned about next year’s water storage. The wild card is weather, he said. The reservoirs rely on melted snow pack and the National Weather Service is predicting that snow totals could be low this winter, Bostrom said.

The August reservoir report shows the city’s reservoir level is 57 percent – that’s equal to about 1.8 years of demand in storage. In previous years, the reservoir level was 74 percent. That below-average storage level prompted the city-wide watering restrictions, which began in April. Residents are told to water their lawns two days a week…

Although it might seem like it would, rain does not fill the reservoirs, said Patrice Lehermeier, Utilities spokeswoman. Rain, however, helps residents use less water and the city is about a half billion gallons shy of its goal, she said…

[Colorado Springs] Residents, on average, see a monthly bill of $51.30 compared with much lower average bills for residents of Denver ($27.64), Fort Collins ($34.51) and Pueblo ($24.89) – three cities on major rivers. Aurora water rates are up this year to pay for a major capital project. On average, residents there pay $55.42 a month.

Fountain Creek: ‘What I would like to see is for Pueblo to stop being flooded’ — Buffie McFayden

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Fountain Creek connects Pueblo with Colorado Springs, and controlling it remains a key issue if the Southern Delivery System is to be turned on in three years. So there is bound to be a torrent of discussion on a stormwater enterprise, dams on Fountain Creek and water quality over the next few months.

Pueblo County commissioners set the stage last week for a Sept. 20 meeting to air issues surrounding the county’s 1041 permit for SDS. While there is a varied menu of issues that were hammered out over several months back in 2008-09, it’s clear that Fountain Creek is at the top of the agenda. “I don’t know if any of this works, because I’ve seen the power of the water,” Commissioner Liane “Buffie” McFadyen said last week after reviewing a federal study of dams on Fountain Creek. “What I would like to see is for Pueblo to stop being flooded and for people in north Pueblo County to keep from losing their land to these floods.”

The commissioners — none of whom were on the board when the 1041 permit was negotiated — also are working through the details of exactly how to handle $50 million, plus interest, that was pledged by Colorado Springs to protect Pueblo from flooding that will be made worse by SDS. Their lawyers are focusing the board on what it can do to keep Colorado Springs on track with the conditions agreed to in the 1041 permit.

But a different set of issues is swirling around the sides.

Chief among them is stormwater. It was taken for granted by the Bureau of Reclamation in the studies leading up to a 40-year contract for SDS to operate from Pueblo Dam. In the 1041 conditions, only the incremental flows directly caused by SDS are mentioned. “It’s a moral question and potentially a legal question,” Commissioner Sal Pace said.

In July, the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District claimed flooding has worsened and water quality deteriorated after Colorado Springs City Council eliminated its stormwater enterprise fee in 2009. Commissioners want to hear that report, as well as the rebuttal from Colorado Springs Utilities.

Last week, public wrangling over the stormwater question broke out again in Colorado Springs. Mayor Steve Bach was quoted in the Gazette as favoring a city stormwater fee, while Council President Keith King argued for a regional approach — possibly extending to the confluence and including Pueblo.

The Colorado Springs Council plans hearings of its own in the next few months to sort out which approach voters would be most likely to favor.

More Fountain Creek coverage here and here.