Farmers are depleting the #OgallalaAquifer because the government pays them to do it — The Conversation


A center-pivot sprinkler with precision application drop nozzles irrigates cotton in Texas.
USDA NRCS/Wikipedia

Matthew R Sanderson, Kansas State University; Burke Griggs, Washburn University, and Jacob A. Miller, Kansas State University

A slow-moving crisis threatens the U.S. Central Plains, which grow a quarter of the nation’s crops. Underground, the region’s lifeblood – water – is disappearing, placing one of the world’s major food-producing regions at risk.

The Ogallala-High Plains Aquifer is one of the world’s largest groundwater sources, extending from South Dakota down through the Texas Panhandle across portions of eight states. Its water supports US$35 billion in crop production each year.

But farmers are pulling water out of the Ogallala faster than rain and snow can recharge it. Between 1900 and 2008 they drained some 89 trillion gallons from the aquifer – equivalent to two-thirds of Lake Erie. Depletion is threatening drinking water supplies and undermining local communities already struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, hospital closures, soaring farm losses and rising suicide rates.

Map showing changing Ogallala Aquifer water levels over the past century
Changes in Ogallala water levels from before the aquifer was tapped in the early 20th century to 2015. Gray indicates no significant change. Water levels have risen in some areas, especially Nebraska, but are mostly in decline.
NCA 2018

In Kansas, “Day Zero” – the day wells run dry – has arrived for about 30% of the aquifer. Within 50 years, the entire aquifer is expected be 70% depleted.

Some observers blame this situation on periodic drought. Others point to farmers, since irrigation accounts for 90% of Ogallala groundwater withdrawals. But our research, which focuses on social and legal aspects of water use in agricultural communities, shows that farmers are draining the Ogallala because state and federal policies encourage them to do it.

A production treadmill

At first glance, farmers on the Plains appear to be doing well in 2020. Crop production increased this year. Corn, the largest crop in the U.S., had a near-record year, and farm incomes increased by 5.7% over 2019.

But those figures hide massive government payments to farmers. Federal subsidies increased by a remarkable 65% this year, totaling $37.2 billion. This sum includes money for lost exports from escalating trade wars, as well as COVID-19-related relief payments. Corn prices were too low to cover the cost of growing it this year, with federal subsidies making up the difference.

Our research finds that subsidies put farmers on a treadmill, working harder to produce more while draining the resource that supports their livelihood. Government payments create a vicious cycle of overproduction that intensifies water use. Subsidies encourage farmers to expand and buy expensive equipment to irrigate larger areas.

Irrigation pump in field
Irrigation pump in Haskell County, Kansas.
Matthew Sanderson/Kansas State University, CC BY-ND

With low market prices for many crops, production does not cover expenses on most farms. To stay afloat, many farmers buy or lease more acres. Growing larger amounts floods the market, further reducing crop prices and farm incomes. Subsidies support this cycle.

Few benefit, especially small and midsized operations. In a 2019 study of the region’s 234 counties from 1980 to 2010, we found that larger irrigated acreage failed to increase incomes or improve education or health outcomes for residents.

Focus on policy, not farmers

Four decades of federal, state and local conservation efforts have mainly targeted individual farmers, providing ways for them to voluntarily reduce water use or adopt more water-efficient technologies.

While these initiatives are important, they haven’t stemmed the aquifer’s decline. In our view, what the Ogallala Aquifer region really needs is policy change.

A lot can be done at the federal level, but the first principle should be “do no harm.” Whenever federal agencies have tried to regulate groundwater, the backlash has been swift and intense, with farm states’ congressional representatives repudiating federal jurisdiction over groundwater.

Nor should Congress propose to eliminate agricultural subsidies, as some environmental organizations and free-market advocates have proposed. Given the thin margins of farming and longstanding political realities, federal support is simply part of modern production agriculture.

With these cautions in mind, three initiatives could help ease pressure on farmers to keep expanding production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to allow environmentally sensitive farmland to lie fallow for at least 10 years. With new provisions, the program could reduce water use by prohibiting expansion of irrigated acreage, permanently retiring marginal lands and linking subsidies to production of less water-intensive crops.

These initiatives could be implemented through the federal farm bill, which also sets funding levels for nonfarm subsidies such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. SNAP payments, which increase needy families’ food budgets, are an important tool for addressing poverty. Increasing these payments and adding financial assistance to local communities could offset lower tax revenues that result from from farming less acreage.

A 40-year sequence of false-color satellite images shows the spread of center-pivot irrigation around Dalhart, Texas from 1972 to 2011. The equipment creates circular patterns as a sprinkler rotates around a well pivot.

Amending federal farm credit rates could also slow the treadmill. Generous terms promote borrowing for irrigation equipment; to pay that debt, borrowers farm more land. Offering lower rates for equipment that reduces water use and withholding loans for standard, wasteful equipment could nudge farmers toward conservation.

The most powerful tool is the tax code. Currently, farmers receive deductions for declining groundwater levels and can write off depreciation on irrigation equipment. Replacing these perks with a tax credit for stabilizing groundwater and substituting a depreciation schedule favoring more efficient irrigation equipment could provide strong incentives to conserve water.

Rewriting state water laws

Water rights are mostly determined by state law, so reforming state water policies is crucial. Case law demonstrates that simply owning water rights does not grant the legal right to waste water. For more than a century courts have upheld state restrictions on waste, with rulings that allow for adaptation by modifying the definitions of “beneficial use” and “waste” over time.

Using these precedents, state water agencies could designate thirsty crops, such as rice, cotton or corn, as wasteful in certain regions. Regulations preventing unreasonable water use are not unconstitutional.

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Allowing farmers some flexibility will maximize profits, as long as they stabilize overall water use. If they irrigate less – or not at all – in years with low market prices, rules could allow more irrigation in better years. Ultimately, many farmers – and their bankers – are willing to exchange lower annual yields for a longer water supply.

As our research has shown, the vast majority of farmers in the region want to save groundwater. They will need help from policymakers to do it. Forty years is long enough to learn that the Ogallala Aquifer’s decline is not driven by weather or by individual farmers’ preferences. Depletion is a structural problem embedded in agricultural policies. Groundwater depletion is a policy choice made by federal, state and local officials.

Stephen Lauer and Vivian Aranda-Hughes, former doctoral students at Kansas State University, contributed to several of the studies cited in this article.The Conversation

Matthew R Sanderson, Professor of Sociology and Professor of Geography and Geospatial Sciences, Kansas State University; Burke Griggs, Associate Professor of Law, Washburn University, and Jacob A. Miller, PhD Student in Sociology, Kansas State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 #OgallalaAquifer Summit will take place March 31-April 1, 2020 in Amarillo, Texas

Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Jennifer Dimas):

The 2020 Ogallala Aquifer Summit will take place in Amarillo, Texas, from March 31 to April 1, bringing together water management leaders from all eight Ogallala region states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming. The dynamic, interactive event will focus on encouraging exchange among participants about innovative programs and effective approaches to addressing the region’s significant water-related challenges.

“Tackling Tough Question” is the theme of the event. Workshops and speakers will share and compare responses to questions such as: “What is the value of groundwater to current and future generations?” and “How do locally led actions aimed at addressing water challenges have larger-scale impact?”

“The summit provides a unique opportunity to strengthen collaborations among a diverse range of water-focused stakeholders,” said summit co-chair Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at CSU. “Exploring where we have common vision and identifying innovative concepts or practices already being implemented can catalyze additional actions with potential to benefit the aquifer and Ogallala region communities over the short and long term.”

Schipanski co-directs the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP) with Colorado Water Center director and summit co-chair Reagan Waskom, who is also a faculty member in Soil and Crop Sciences. The Ogallala Water CAP, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has a multi-disciplinary team of 70 people based at 10 institutions in six Ogallala-region states. They are all engaged in collaborative research and outreach for sustaining agriculture and ecosystems in the region.

Some Ogallala Water CAP research and outreach results will be shared at the 2020 Ogallala Summit. The Ogallala Water CAP has led the coordination of the event, in partnership with colleagues at Texas A&M AgriLife, the Kansas Water Office, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service-funded Ogallala Aquifer Program, with additional support provided by many individuals and organizations from the eight Ogallala states.

The 2020 Summit will highlight several activities and outcomes inspired by or expanded as a result of the 2018 Ogallala Summit. Participants will include producers; irrigation company and commodity group representatives; students and academics; local and state policy makers; groundwater management district leaders; crop consultants; agricultural lenders; state and federal agency staff; and others, including new and returning summit participants.

“Water conservation technologies are helpful, and we need more of them, but human decision-making is the real key to conserving the Ogallala,” said Brent Auvermann, center director at Texas A&M AgriLife Research – Amarillo. “The emergence of voluntary associations among agricultural water users to reduce groundwater use is an encouraging step, and we need to learn from those associations’ experiences with regard to what works, and what doesn’t, and what possibilities exist that don’t require expanding the regulatory state.”

The summit will take place over two half-days, starting at 11 a.m. Central Time (10 a.m. MDT) on Tuesday, March 31 and concluding the next day on Wednesday, April 1 at 2:30 p.m. The event includes a casual evening social on the evening of March 31 that will feature screening of a portion of the film “Rising Water,” by Nebraska filmmaker Becky McMillen, followed by a panel discussion on effective agricultural water-related communications.

Visit the 2020 Ogallala summit webpage to see a detailed agenda, lodging info, and to access online registration. Pre-registration is required, and space is limited. The registration deadline is Saturday, March 21 at midnight Central Time (11 p.m. MDT).

This event is open to credentialed members of the media. Please RSVP to Katie.ingels@kwo.ks.gov or amy.kremen@colostate.edu

The Ogallala aquifer, also referred to as the High Plains aquifer. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration

#NewMexico: Concern over depletions from the #OgallalaAquifer @nmreport

From The New Mexico Political Report (Kendra Chamberlain):

The Ogallala aquifer is rapidly declining.

The large underground reservoir stretches from Wyoming and the Dakotas to New Mexico, with segments crossing key farmland in Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. It serves as the main water source for what’s known as the breadbasket of America — an area that contributes at least a fifth of the total annual agricultural harvest in the United States.

The U.S. Geological Survey began warning about the aquifer’s depletion in the 1960s, though the severity of the issue seems to have only recently hit the mainstream. Farmers in places like Kansas are now grappling with the reality of dried up wells.

The Ogallala aquifer, also referred to as the High Plains aquifer. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration

In New Mexico, the situation is more dire. The portions of the aquifer in eastern New Mexico are shallower than in other agricultural zones, and the water supply is running low.

In 2016, the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources sent a team to Curry and Roosevelt counties to evaluate the lifespan of the aquifer. The news was not good. Researchers determined some areas of aquifer had just three to five years left before it would run dry given the current usage levels, potentially leaving thousands of residents and farmers without any local water source.

The news left local decision-makers in the region weighing options to balance farmland demand for irrigation and community needs for drinking water while a more permanent solution is put into place.

“There’s no policy in place to provide for that scenario,” David Landsford, who is currently mayor of Clovis and chairman of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority told NM Political Report.

Climate researchers and hydrogeologists agree these types of water scarcity issues will likely become more commonplace in the southwest and beyond as the climate further warms.

“Climate change, especially in the west and southwest, is already impacting us,” said Stacy Timmons, associate director of hydrogeology programs at the Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, at a National Ground Water Association conference in Albuquerque.

“There’s some places where we’re seeing some pretty remarkable declines in water availability that are, in some ways, reflecting climate change,” Timmons said. “You can see, just over the last twenty years, there’s been some pretty significant drought impacts to New Mexico, specifically.”

Timmons has assembled a team to head up a new initiative to help the state better track water use, quality and scarcity. The program revolves around data: aggregating all the water data that’s collected across different sectors, government agencies and research organizations in the state. The idea is that by collecting that data in one central location and making it available to everyone, policy makers will have a better understanding not only of current water resources, but also how to shape water management policies moving forward to reflect that reality.

“There’s a huge shift globally and nationally in how we’re looking at water,” Timmons said. “Here in New Mexico, we are really on the cutting edge of actually accessing some of this technology, and we’re starting to modernize how we manage our water and our water data.”

Water Data Act

New Mexico became only the second state in the country to prioritize water data management in statute when the Legislature passed the Water Data Act in 2019. The legislation garnered support from ranchers, farmers, environmentalists and, ultimately, state lawmakers. It passed both the House and Senate unanimously.

The Water Data Act aims to develop a modern, integrated approach to collecting, sharing and using water data. The act also established a fund to accept both state funds and grants and donations to support improvements to water data collection state-wide.

“It’s a tool in the tool box that’s going to help New Mexico as a whole manage our water,” said Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, one of the bill’s sponsors. “If it’s all kept in one place and is readily available, that becomes a tool for management.”

The program is just now getting off the ground, Timmons said. Part of the work has been to secure additional funding to run the program effectively, after much of the budget appropriation for the initiative was stripped from the legislation in committee.

“We have $110,000 to launch this effort — which is not enough, I will say,” Timmons said, but added that her team was able to leverage that money to receive additional grants and philanthropic funds.

The program will only be as effective as its data is descriptive — and getting all the data into the same place, in the same format, is a challenge. While government agencies and departments, including the USGS, the Interstate Stream Commission, the Office of the State Engineer and the New Mexico Environment Department, all collect and manage water data, they do so in different ways.

“There’s four or five or ten different agencies that have data about one location, but right now we don’t have one unifying way to coordinate all of those data sets,” Timmons said. “Everyone has their own way of managing it.”

And the team is also identifying where there are gaps in water data collection that can be addressed in the future.

“A lot of our rural parts of the state, there’s not a whole lot of data on them,” Timmons said. “There’s huge swaths of land where there are some water resources, there are some people on private domestic wells, and we just don’t have a great deal of information to evaluate what the water resources might be in those areas, or where there’s water quality concerns.”

“There’s very little useful information in the realm of metering of how much groundwater use is happening around the state,” she added.

Her team is working to locate, extract and codify the water data sets from those groups and aggregate that data into one central online database. The team has already set up an initial web portal where anyone can browse the data that’s already been uploaded.

Informing water policy

So how will that data help decision makers?

Timmons said that by better understanding how much water is left in our aquifers, and how that water is being used, communities will be better positioned to make decisions about how to craft water policy as the resource becomes more and more scarce.

“By sharing our data, it’s going to be more easily put towards operational decisions and broader state-wide decision making,” Timmons said. “We’re working over the next several years to bring in additional data providers and start pilot studies to utilize that data.”

Back in eastern New Mexico, communities in and around Clovis, Portales, Cannon Air Force Base and Texico are now tackling how to manage what’s left of Ogallala aquifer while securing a new water source.

The Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority broke ground on a project that officials believe will sustain the region and its agricultural demand for water. The plan is to build a pipeline to transport water from the Ute Reservoir north of the area to the water-scarce communities in Curry and Roosevelt counties. The project includes new wells being drilled in segments of the aquifer where there’s more groundwater to help support those communities while the rest of the pipeline is built.

Ute Reservoir Pipeline map via the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority

The $527 million project will take years to complete, but Landsford said he expects portions of the pipeline to be operational and delivering water to customers in the next five to six years.

“It’s a step plan,” Landsford said. “Connect the communities, reserve some water, and then once you have additional groundwater secured in the interim, you can supply groundwater to the customers and spend the rest of the time getting to the reservoir, where the renewable supply is located. That’s the general blueprint for where we’re going.”

That type of thinking is emblematic of what Timmons’ described as a shift towards resiliency among communities and policymakers in the face of climate change and water scarcity.

“I’m beginning to see that there’s a paradigm shift happening, and there’s reason to be optimistic about the future, despite some of the doom and gloom data that we have,” Timmons said at the conference. “There’s really a new shift happening in how we think about water, especially here in the southwest. We acknowledge that, in many places where we’re using groundwater, we’re mining the aquifer. We need to be thinking about how we can increase the flexibility of that, and increase the redundancy in where we have water resources.”

“The term ‘sustainability’ has been used — especially when thinking about groundwater — it’s really out the window now,” she said. “We’re starting to think about it more in terms of resilience.”

2020 #OgallalaAquifer Summit in Amarillo, #TX, March 31 – April 1, 2020 — The #Kansas #Water Office

Here’s the release from the Kansas Water Office (Katie Patterson-Ingels, Amy Kremen):

8-State Conversation to Highlight Actions & Programs Benefitting the Aquifer, Ag, and Ogallala communities

The 2020 Ogallala Aquifer Summit will take place in Amarillo, Texas, from March 31 to April 1, bringing together water management leaders from all eight Ogallala region states: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming. The dynamic, interactive event will focus on encouraging exchange among participants about innovative programs and effective approaches being implemented to address the region’s significant water-related challenges.

“Tackling Tough Questions,” is the theme of the event. Workshops and speakers share and compare responses to questions such as: “What is the value of groundwater to current and future generations” and “how do locally-led actions aimed at addressing water challenges have larger-scale impact?”

“The summit provides a unique opportunity to strengthen collaborations among a diverse range of water-focused stakeholders,” said summit co-chair Meagan Schipanski, an associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at CSU. “Exploring where we have common vision and identifying innovative concepts or practices already being implemented can catalyze additional actions with potential to benefit the aquifer and Ogallala region communities over the short- and long-term.”

Schipanski co-directs the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP) with Colorado Water Center director and summit co-chair Reagan Waskom, who is also a faculty member in Soil and Crop Sciences. The Ogallala Water CAP, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has a multi-disciplinary team of 70 people based at 10 institutions in 6 Ogallala-region states, engaged in collaborative research and outreach aimed at sustaining agriculture and ecosystems in the region.

Some Ogallala Water CAP research and outreach results will be shared at the 2020 Ogallala Summit. The Ogallala Water CAP has led the coordination of this event, in partnership with colleagues at Texas A&M AgriLife, the Kansas Water Office, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service-funded Ogallala Aquifer Program, with additional support provided by many other individuals and organizations from the eight Ogallala states.

The 2020 Summit will highlight several activities and outcomes inspired by or expanded as a result of the 2018 Ogallala Summit. Participants will include producers, irrigation company and commodity group representatives, students and academics, local and state policy makers, groundwater management district leaders, crop consultants, agricultural lenders, state and federal agency staff, and others, including new and returning summit participants.

“Water conservation technologies are helpful, and we need more of them, but human decision-making is the real key to conserving the Ogallala,” said Brent Auvermann, Center Director at Texas A&M AgriLife Research – Amarillo. “The emergence of voluntary associations among agricultural water users to reduce ground water use is an encouraging step, and we need to learn from those associations’ experiences with regard to what works, and what doesn’t, and what possibilities exist that don’t require expanding the regulatory state.”

The summit will take place over two half-days, starting at 11:00 a.m. Central Time on Tuesday, March 31 and concluding the next day on Wednesday, April 1 at 2:30 p.m. The event includes a casual evening social on the evening of March 31 that will feature screening of a portion of the film “Rising Water,” by Nebraska filmmaker Becky McMillen, followed by a panel discussion on effective agricultural water-related communications.

Visit the 2020 Ogallala summit webpage to see a detailed agenda, lodging info, and to access online registration. Pre-registration is required, and space is limited. The registration deadline is Saturday, March 21 at midnight Central Time.

This event is open to credentialed members of the media. Please RSVP to Katie.ingels@kwo.ks.gov or amy.kremen@colostate.edu.

Ogallala Aquifer. This map shows changes in Ogallala water levels from the period before the aquifer was tapped to 2015. Declining levels appear in red and orange, and rising levels appear in shades of blue. The darker the color, the greater the change. Gray indicates no significant change. Although water levels have actually risen in some areas, especially Nebraska, water levels are mostly in decline, namely from Kansas southward. Image credit: National Climate Assessment 2018

Study Details Effectiveness of Kansas Program That Pays Farmers to Conserve Water — @UnivOfKansas

Plots of land in Finney County, Kansas, utilize irrigation water from the High Plains Aquifer. Credit: NASA via the University of Kansas

From the University of Kansas (Jon Niccum):

Crops need water. And in the central United States, the increasing scarcity of water resources is becoming a threat to the nation’s food production.

Tsvetan Tsvetanov, assistant professor of economics at the University of Kansas, has analyzed a pilot program intended to conserve water in the agriculture-dependent region. His article “The Effectiveness of a Water Right Retirement Program at Conserving Water,” co-written with fellow KU economics professor Dietrich Earnhart, is published in the current issue of Land Economics.

“Residential water use is mostly problematic in California, and not so much here in Kansas. However, people don’t realize that residential use is tiny compared to agricultural use,” Tsvetanov said.

“I don’t want to discourage efforts to conserve water use among residential households. But if we want to really make a difference, it’s the agricultural sector that needs to change its practices.”

That’s the impetus behind the Kansas Water Right Transition Assistance Program (WTAP).

“If you’re a farmer, you need water to irrigate. If you don’t irrigate, you don’t get to sell your crops, and you lose money. So the state says if you reduce the amount of water you use, it’s actually going to pay you. So it’s essentially compensating you to irrigate less,” he said.

But this is not a day-to-day solution. The state recompenses farmers to permanently retire their water rights. The five-year pilot program that began in 2008 offers up to $2,000 for every acre-foot retired.

This benefits the High Plains Aquifer, the world’s largest freshwater aquifer system, which is located beneath much of the Great Plains. Around 21 million acre-feet of water is withdrawn from this system, primarily for agricultural purposes.

Tsvetanov and Earnhart’s work distinguishes the effectiveness between two target areas: creek sub-basins and high-priority areas. Their study (which is the first to directly estimate the effects of water right retirement) found WTAP resulted in no reduction of usage in the creek areas but substantial reduction in the high-priority areas.

“Our first thought was, ‘That’s not what we expected,’” Tsvetanov said.

“The creeks are the geographic majority of what’s being covered by the policy. The high-priority areas are called that for a reason — they’ve been struggling for many years. Our best guess is that farmers there were more primed to respond to the policy because there is awareness things are not looking good, and something needs to be done. So as soon as a policy became available which compensated them for the reduction of water use, they were quicker to take advantage of it.”

Of the eight states sitting atop the High Plains Aquifer, Texas is the worst in terms of water depletion volume. However, Kansas suffers from the fastest rate of depletion during the past half-century.

“Things are quite dire,” Tsvetanov said. “The western part of Kansas is more arid, so they don’t get as much precipitation as we do here in the east. Something needs to change in the long run, and this is just the first step.”

Tsvetanov initially was studying solar adoption while doing his postdoctoral work at Yale University in Connecticut. When visiting KU for a job interview, he assumed the sunny quality of the Wheat State would be a great fit for his research. He soon realized that few policies incentivized the adoption of solar.

“At that point, I thought, ‘I can’t really adapt solar research to the state of Kansas because there’s not much going on here.’ And then I started getting more interested in water scarcity because this truly is a big local issue,” he said.

A native of Bulgaria who was raised in India (as a member of a diplomat’s family), Tsvetanov is now in his fifth year at KU. He studies energy and environmental economics, specifically how individual household choices factor into energy efficiency and renewable resources.

The state of Kansas spent $2.9 million in the half decade that the WTAP pilot program ran. Roughly 6,000 acre-feet of water rights were permanently retired.

“Maybe it’s a start, but it’s not something you would expect to stabilize the depletion,” Tsvetanov said. “This is just a drop in the bucket. Essentially what we need is some alternative source of income for those people living out there, aside from irrigation-intensive agriculture.”

Report: #Groundwater Availability of the Northern #HighPlainsAquifer in #Colorado, #Kansas, #Nebraska, #SouthDakota, and #Wyoming — @USGS #OgallalaAquifer

Click here to download the paper. Here’s the executive summary:

The Northern High Plains aquifer underlies about 93,000 square miles of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming and is the largest subregion of the nationally important High Plains aquifer. Irrigation, primarily using groundwater, has supported agricultural production since before 1940, resulting in nearly $50 billion in sales in 2012. In 2010, the High Plains aquifer had the largest groundwater withdrawals of any major aquifer system in the United States. Nearly one-half of those withdrawals were from the Northern High Plains aquifer, which has little hydrologic interaction with parts of the aquifer farther south. Land-surface elevation ranges from more than 7,400 feet (ft) near the western edge to less than 1,100 ft near the eastern edge. Major stream primarily flow west to east and include the Big Blue River, Elkhorn River, Loup River, Niobrara River, Republican River and Platte River with its two forks—the North Platte River and South Platte River. Population in the Northern High Plain aquifer area is sparse with only 2 cities having a population greater than 30,000.

Droughts across much of the area from 2001 to 2007, combined with recent (2004–18) legislation, have heightened concerns regarding future groundwater availability and highlighted the need for science-based water-resource management. Groundwater models with the capability to provide forecasts of groundwater availability and related stream base flows from the Northern High Plains aquifer were published recently (2016) and were used to analyze groundwater availability. Stream base flows are generally the dominant component of total streamflow in the Northern High Plains aquifer, and total streamflows or shortages thereof define conjunctive management triggers, at least in Nebraska. Groundwater availability was evaluated through comparison of aquifer-scale water budgets compared for periods before and after major groundwater development and across selected future forecasts. Groundwater-level declines and the forecast amount of groundwater in storage in the aquifer also were examined.

Major Findings

  • Aquifer losses to irrigation withdrawals increased greatly from 1940 to 2009 and were the largest average 2000–9 outflow (49 percent of total).
  • Basin to basin groundwater flows were not a large part of basin water budgets.
  • Development of irrigated land and associated withdrawals were not uniform across the Northern High Plains aquifer, and different parts of the Northern High Plains aquifer responded differently to agricultural development.
  • For the Northern High Plains aquifer, areas with high recharge and low evapotranspiration had the most streamflow, and most streams only remove water from the aquifer.
  • Results of a baseline future forecast indicated that groundwater levels declined overall, indicating an overdraft of the aquifer when climate was about average and agricultural development was held at the same state as 2009.
  • Results of two human stresses future forecasts indicated that increases of 13 percent or 23 percent in agricultural development, mostly near areas of previous development, caused increases in groundwater pumping of 8 percent or 11 percent, and resulted in continued groundwater-level declines, at rates 0.3 or 0.5 million acre-feet per year larger than the baseline forecast.
  • Results of environmental stresses forecasts (generated from two downscalings of global climate model outputs) compared with the baseline forecast indicated that even though annual precipitation was nearly the same, differences in temperature and a redistribution of precipitation from the spring to the growing season (from about May 1 through September 30), created a large (12–15 percent) decrease in recharge to the aquifer.
  • For the two environmental stresses forecasts, temperature and precipitation were distributed about the same among basins of the Northern High Plains aquifer, but the amounts were different.
  • Citation

    Peterson, S.M., Traylor, J.P., and Guira, M., 2020, Groundwater availability of the Northern High Plains aquifer in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1864, 57 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/pp1864.

    Central Plains Irrigation Conference February 18-19, 2020, Burlington, #Colorado, Burlington Community Center

    The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

    Click here for all the inside skinny from Kansas State University.

    #Wyoming ranchers lodge protest against new high capacity wells in the #OgallalaAquifer #LaramieRiver #NorthPlatteRiver

    Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

    From Wyoming Public Radio (Melodie Edwards):

    The Wyoming State Engineer’s Office recently heard a proposal to drill eight high-capacity water wells in Laramie County, and now 17 ranchers and farmers in the area are protesting.

    The wells would use a total of 1.5 billion acre feet of water from the Ogallala Aquifer that many states in the Western U.S. rely on for water. Fifth generation Wyoming rancher and attorney Reba Epler said if the state engineer approves these wells, stock wells on her family ranch would likely dry up.

    “One of the ways we’d be impacted immediately is that we’d have shallower stock wells that we’ve used for about 50 years,” Epler said. “We’d have to drill much deeper, and the cost of drilling deeper is getting significantly more expensive.”

    Epler said all eight wells were applied for by three members of the Lerwick family. She said it’s possible the family wants to sell the water to use in the fracking process since a lot of oil and gas development is happening in the area.

    “If you really want to know, I think it’s a classic resource grab,” Epler said. “And anyone who controls 4,642 acre feet of water has a tremendous amount of power and they will have it a long time and many generations of people will have that kind of power.”

    Epler said it doesn’t make sense to give anyone that much water when the Ogalalla Aquifer is already drawing down so much nationwide.

    “The aquifer in parts of Texas has gone dry, it’s gone dry in parts of New Mexico. Oklahoma, Kansas are having a really difficult time because their pivots are drying up. Colorado, eastern Colorado is having a heck of a time.”

    Epler said she remembers when Lodgepole Creek near her ranch ran year round.

    Ogallala Aquifer. This map shows changes in Ogallala water levels from the period before the aquifer was tapped to 2015. Declining levels appear in red and orange, and rising levels appear in shades of blue. The darker the color, the greater the change. Gray indicates no significant change. Although water levels have actually risen in some areas, especially Nebraska, water levels are mostly in decline, namely from Kansas southward. Image credit: National Climate Assessment 2018

    Report: Simulating the sensitivity of evapotranspiration and streamflow to large-scale groundwater depletion

    Click here to read the report. Here’s the abstract:

    Groundwater pumping has caused marked aquifer storage declines over the past century. In addition to threatening the viability of groundwater-dependent economic activities, storage losses reshape the hydrologic landscape, shifting groundwater surface water exchanges and surface water availability. A more comprehensive understanding of modern groundwater-depleted systems is needed as we strive for improved simulations and more efficient water resources management. Here, we begin to address this gap by evaluating the impact of 100 years of groundwater declines across the continental United States on simulated watershed behavior. Subsurface storage losses reverberate throughout hydrologic systems, decreasing streamflow and evapotranspiration. Evapotranspiration declines are focused in water-limited periods and shallow groundwater regions. Streamflow losses are widespread and intensify along drainage networks, often occurring far from the point of groundwater abstraction. Our integrated approach illustrates the sensitivity of land surface simulations to groundwater storage levels and a path toward evaluating these connections in large-scale models.

    From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

    Groundwater pumping is causing rivers and small streams throughout the country to decline, according to a new study from researchers at the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Arizona.

    “If you pump near a stream you’re going to change the amount of water that flows through the stream, because some of that stream water is going to basically get pulled to the well instead of flowing down the stream,” said Reed Maxwell, hydrologist at Colorado School of Mines and the study’s co-author.

    Maxwell says his new study with hydrologist Laura Condon at the University of Arizona goes broad, quantifying the effect of pumping across the country.

    “What we found is that we have actually depleted streams quite a bit,” Maxwell said.

    The study finds that since the 1950s groundwater pumping has caused some stream flows to decline upwards of 50 percent. Some streams have disappeared from the surface altogether, seeping underground to refill pumped groundwater, the study finds.

    Declines are particularly stark in portions of the Colorado River basin and on the Great Plains, Maxwell said.

    Using a computer model, researchers were able to envision what rivers across the U.S. would’ve looked like without widespread groundwater pumping, which took hold in the 1950s.

    Paper: Effects of management areas, #drought, and commodity prices on groundwater decline patterns across the #HighPlainsAquifer — Erin Haacker, et. al

    The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

    Click here to snag a copy to read (Erin M.K. Haacker, Kayla A. Cotterman, Samuel J. Smidt, Anthony D. Kendall, David W. Hyndman). Here’s the abstract:

    We use an 82-year record of water table data from the High Plains Aquifer to introduce a new application of segmented regression to hydrogeology, and evaluate the effects of droughts, crop prices, and local groundwater management on groundwater level trajectories. Across the High Plains, we find discernable regional cycles of faster and slower water table declines. A parsimonious Classification And Regression Tree (CART) analysis details correlations between select explanatory variables and changes in water table trajectories, quantified as changes in slope of well hydrographs. Drying relative to prior-year conditions is associated with negative changes in slope; in the absence of drying conditions, steep declines in commodity price are associated with positive changes in hydrograph slopes. Establishment of a groundwater management area is not a strong predictor for change in water table trajectories, but more wells tend to have negative changes in around the time of management areas are formation, suggesting that drought conditions are associated with both negative deflections in water table trajectory and enactment of management areas. Segmented regression is a promising tool for groundwater managers to evaluate change thresholds and the effectiveness of management strategies on groundwater storage and decline, using readily available water table data.

    The Republican River Water Conservation District Purchases Several Surface Water Rights: Irrigated acres associated with 27.5 CFS subject to dry-up

    From the Republican River Water Conservation District via The Julesberg Advoacate:

    In an effort to increase the surface water flows in the Republican River system, the Republican River Water Conservation District has recently purchased and leased multiple surface water rights on both the North Fork and South Fork Republican Rivers. By keeping the surface water in the river, the RRWCD is greatly enhancing the ability of the State of Colorado to stay in compliance with the Republican River Compact. Due to the extensive efforts of the RRWCD and the Colorado State Engineer’s office, Colorado will be in compliance with the Compact in 2019.

    This will be the first year since the Final Settlement Stipulation was signed in 2002, that Colorado will be in compact compliance.

    In the Annual Compact accounting 60% of all surface diversions are treated as depletions to the flows of the rivers and those depletions must be replaced through the Compact Compliance Pipeline. This requires considerably more water than off-setting comparable groundwater pumping. Last week, the RRWCD purchased the Hayes Creek Ditch and the Hayes Creek Ditch #3 surfacewater rights on a tributary of the North Fork Republican River. Some of these water rights were diverted each year, and the RRWCD was required to off-set those diversions with additional pumping from the compact compliance pipeline.

    The RRWCD also purchased and leased a total of 27.5 cubic feet per second of surface water rights formerly owned by the Hutton Foundation Trust. Significant diversions on the South Fork have impacted Colorado’s efforts to come in to compliance with the Compact. As part of the Compact accounting there are tests for State Wide compliance and tests for each sub-basin. When calculating the sub-basin non-impairment test, additional diversions on the South Fork can contribute to a failure to meet the Compact non-compliance. By purchasing the surface water rights, the RRWCD can insure that the water will stay in the stream and will be measured at the state-line gage and again at the compact gage near Benkelman, NE.

    After years of legal conflict, all entities can stop litigation because by purchasing these surface water rights, all legal actions by the Hutton Foundation Trust or by CPW, Inc. will be terminated. By purchasing the South Fork surface water rights, the RRWCD will not have to operate the Compact Compliance pipeline an additional 17 days that would be required to off-set the amount of water these rights would otherwise be entitled to divert.

    The Republican River Compact Administration (RRCA) has approved the operation and accounting for the Compact Compliance Pipeline. As part of getting this approval, Colorado agreed to voluntarily retire up to 25,000 acres in the South Fork Focus Zone (SFFZ) by 2029. Colorado is pursuing 10,000 retired irrigated acres in the SFFZ by 2024 and an additional 15,000 retired irrigated acres by 2029.

    Drying up the acres formerly irrigated by these surface water rights will contribute to the total of retired irrigated acres in the SFFZ, but Colorado is still far from the 10,000 acres to be retired by 2024.

    The RRWCD continues to offer supplemental contracts for CREP and for EQIP conservation programs. The District offers increased annual payments for acres retired in the South Fork Focus Zone.

    Currently the FSA, NRCS, the State of Colorado and the RRWCD are waiting for the USDA to publish the Rules and Regulations for the 2018 Farm Bill. As soon as the rules and regulations are published, producers can start applying for these conservation programs.

    The consensus of the RRWCD Board is that by completing these purchases, it improves the ability to secure compact compliance now and into the future.

    The RRWCD also approved a Water Use Fee Policy during the quarterly Board meeting on April 25th in Yuma. The Water Use Fee Policy includes a fee for junior surface water right diversions, and it modifies the annual fee for municipal and commercial wells. A copy of the fee policy is available on the RRWCD website at http://www.republicanriver.com.

    If you have any questions please contact Rod Lenz, RRWCD President, 970-630-3265, Deb Daniel, RRWCD General Manager, 970-332-3552 or contact any RRWCD Board member.

    “Virtually all levels in south-central #Kansas wells were up, along with a good portion of those in northwest Kansas” — Brownie Wilson ((Kansas Geological Survey)

    Dragon Line irrigation system. Photo credit: AgriExpo.com.

    Here’s the release from the University of Kansas:

    Groundwater levels during 2018, on average, rose slightly or remained about even throughout most of western and central Kansas, according to preliminary data compiled by the Kansas Geological Survey.

    “By and large, 2018 was a good year for groundwater levels,” said Brownie Wilson, KGS water-data manager. “Virtually all levels in south-central Kansas wells were up along with a good portion of those in northwest Kansas, and although southwest Kansas saw a few decline areas in the usual spots, they were not as great as in years past.”

    The KGS, based at the University of Kansas, and the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources (DWR) measure more than 1,400 water wells in Kansas annually. Most of the wells are drilled into the High Plains aquifer, a network of water-bearing rocks underlying parts of eight states and the state’s most valuable groundwater resource.

    Ninety percent of the collected data comes from wells tapping the aquifer. The other wells are drilled into other aquifers underlying the High Plains aquifer and shallow aquifers adjacent to surface-water sources, such as the Arkansas River. Most of the 1,400 wells have been measured for decades.

    In Kansas, the High Plains aquifer comprises three individual aquifers—the widespread Ogallala aquifer that underlies most of the western third of Kansas, the Equus Beds around Wichita and Hutchinson, and the Great Bend Prairie aquifer around Pratt and Great Bend.

    Water levels in the Ogallala aquifer are influenced mainly by the amount of water withdrawn each year, which in turn is affected by the rate and timing of precipitation. Recharge, or water seeping down from the surface, adds little groundwater to the Ogallala. In central Kansas, however, recharge has more of an impact because the Equus Beds and Great Bend Prairie aquifer are shallower and average precipitation in that part of the state is higher.

    Most of the wells in the network monitored by the KGS and DWR are within the boundaries of the state’s five Groundwater Management Districts (GMDs), which are organized and governed by area landowners and local water users to address water-resource issues.

    In Southwest Kansas GMD 3, average levels dropped .39 feet. Although down, the change was less than in 17 of the last 20 years when levels fell between .5 and 3.5 feet annually. A rise of .05 feet in 2017 was the only positive movement during that time.

    For the second summer in a row, water flowed for a time from the Colorado state line to Garden City. The river, which interacts with its adjacent shallow alluvial aquifer, has been mainly dry in western Kansas for decades.

    Wells monitored in GMD 3 are drilled into the Ogallala aquifer except in a few areas where they draw from the deeper Dakota aquifer. The district includes all or part of Grant, Haskell, Gray, Finney, Stanton, Ford, Morton, Stevens, Seward, Hamilton, Kearny and Meade counties.

    Western Kansas GMD 1 experienced a slight drop of .18 feet following a slight gain of .07 feet in 2017. The GMD includes portions of Wallace, Greeley, Wichita, Scott, and Lane counties, where the majority of wells are drilled into the Ogallala aquifer.

    “West central was basically unchanged as a whole but the average is bookended by declines in Wallace County and rises in Scott County,” Wilson said.

    Northwest Kansas GMD 4 had an average increase in water levels of .26 feet following a rise of .38 feet in 2017. GMD 4 covers Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan and parts of Cheyenne, Rawlins, Decatur, Graham, Wallace, Logan and Gove counties. Groundwater there is pumped almost exclusively from the Ogallala aquifer and shallow alluvial sources associated with streams. Besides being influenced by precipitation, water-level results in part of GMD 4 were tied to crop loss.

    “Some producers south of the Goodland to Colby area got hailed out early in the 2018 growing season,” Wilson said. “With hail damaged crops and higher precipitation rates in the eastern portion of GMD 4, wells there had less declines or even slight recoveries.”

    Big Bend GMD 5 had an average increase of 1.21 feet following an increase of .30 feet in 2017. The GMD is centered on the Great Bend Prairie aquifer underlying Stafford and Pratt counties and parts of Barton, Pawnee, Edwards, Kiowa, Reno and Rice counties.

    Equus Beds GMD 2, a major source of water for Wichita, Hutchinson and surrounding towns, experienced a gain of 1.35 following a 1.93-foot decline in 2017. The GMD covers portions of Reno, Sedgwick, Harvey and McPherson counties.

    The KGS measured 581 wells in western Kansas and DWR staff from field offices in Stockton, Garden City and Stafford measured 223, 260 and 357 wells in western and central Kansas, respectively. Measurements are taken annually, primarily in January when water levels are least likely to fluctuate due to irrigation.

    The results are provisional and subject to revision based on additional analysis. Data by well is available at http://www.kgs.ku.edu/Magellan/WaterLevels/index.html.

    The Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project update

    From The North Platte Telegraph (George Haws):

    The Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project brings together 70 researchers, along with specialists and students based at seven universities and two USDA research locations…

    OWCAP involves research, demonstration and education. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Water Resources Field Laboratory near Brule is one of the research sites.

    The TAPS competition at North Platte is also part of OWCAP. TAPS stands for Testing Ag Performance Solutions. A highly respected and innovative program, TAPS is made up of miniature corn and grain sorghum “farms,” where individuals and teams make decisions such as when and how much to irrigate, and how much nitrogen fertilizer to use. Participants earn awards for efficiency and profitability.

    UNL water management specialist Daran Rudnick is an active member of the OWCAP research team. He worked with other educators at the West Central Research and Extension Center at North Platte to implement TAPS three years ago.

    OWCAP is about identifying and promoting practices that conserve water and prevent water pollution, said OWCAP Manager Amy Kremen, who is also a water expert at Colorado State University.

    Sharing ideas is an important part of OWCAP. For example, TAPS is now expanding in coordination with Oklahoma State University to offer a sprinkler-irrigated corn competition at Guymon, Oklahoma, this year.

    OWCAP participants in Texas have something to share, too. The Natural Resources Conservation Service and North Plains Groundwater Conservation District there have implemented a master irrigator program that involves intensive training and certification. Now other states are considering implementing similar programs, Paulman said. Programs like that help increase adoption of water conserving practices, he said.

    OWCAP has also resulted in research projects that each span three or more states, Kremen said. That “helps us to draw broader conclusions” about the potential of water conservation practices.

    Those practices include making effective use of soil moisture sensors and aerial photography to inform irrigation and fertilizer decisions, carefully timing irrigation based on crop growth stages, using university-supported irrigation scheduling tools, and transitioning successfully to dryland…

    OWCAP has also resulted in publication of over 50 peer-reviewed journal articles and other reports, which are available at ogallalawater.org.

    Kremen said the OWCAP team is on track to complete its USDA-NIFA funded work within the next two years. Team members are the lead organizers for a summit to take place in early 2020 in Amarillo, Texas. There, water management leaders from throughout the region will share their experiences and findings in hopes of benefiting agricultural producers and communities throughout the region.

    Scottsbluff, #NE: Becky McMillen’s “Rising Water” to screen on March 2, 2019

    Nebraska Rivers Shown on the Map: Beaver Creek, Big Blue River, Calamus River, Dismal River, Elkhorn River, Frenchman Creek, Little Blue River, Lodgepole Creek, Logan Creek, Loup River, Medicine Creek, Middle Loup River, Missouri River, Niobrara River, North Fork Big Nemaha River, North Loup River, North Platte River, Platte River, Republican River, Shell Creek, South Loup River, South Platte River, White River and Wood River. Nebraska Lakes Shown on the Map: Harlan County Lake, Hugh Butler Lake, Lake McConaughy, Lewis and Clark Lake and Merritt Reservoir. Map credit: Geology.com

    From Farm & Ranch (Spike Jordan):

    Water is a contradiction for Western Nebraska. It’s both seemingly abundant, yet simultaneously finite and scarce.

    A new film by a local award-winning documentary filmmaker explores this contradiction and tells the story of water in the Panhandle, from the founding of the numerous irrigation and natural resources districts that line the North Platte valley, to the legal fights surrounding the regulation, distribution and control of that water.

    Insight Creative Independent Productions Executive Producer and Director Becky McMillen’s “Rising Water,” was originally designed to be a web series, and viewers will get a first peek at it when the film premiers at the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering on Saturday, March 2, at 1 p.m. The screening of the documentary is in conjunction with The Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street the Water/Ways” exhibit, which is open now until April 13 at Legacy.

    “Everyone knows how to use YouTube, and they’ve gotten used to web series,” McMillan said. “They’re used to watching short pieces.”

    In essence, each of the segments of the film is a self-contained documentary which covers a different facet of the story of our water, she said.

    The hour and fifteen minute feature is the product of more than three solid years of work, with much of the footage and information gathered over a greater period of time. McMillen said that her father, Udell Hughes Sr., helped her with much of the technical research for the film. It also contains material gathered during production of McMillen’s last major project, “River of Time: Wyoming’s Evolving North Platte River,” a half-hour program which premiered on Wyoming PBS in November 2012.

    “We’ve been sort of building up towards this film,” she said. “A lot of my historical research was actually done at Legacy of the Plains.”

    The film contains interviews with managers of irrigation districts, farmers, UNL researchers and footage from public hearings concerning water issues.

    “I knew that I needed to talk about the Ogallala Aquifer, but it took me a while to understand that issue,” McMillen said.

    So she consulted UNL research hydrogeologist Jim Goeke, who is known as “Mr. Water.” Goeke researched the aquifer and arguably knows more about the water under our feet than any other human being.

    McMillen said she was surprised by how candid Goeke.

    “He gave me courage to address issues that probably weren’t very popular and won’t be very popular,” she said. “We have sucked so much water out of the aquifer and I’ve been watching the Pumpkin Creek battle for years, but lost track of it.”

    The challenge for McMillen was to tie together the surface water and ground water portions of the story.

    And it was a lawsuit over the little western Nebraska stream that became a big State Supreme Court case.

    In 2009 The Spear T Ranch settled with more than a dozen upstream ranchers and farmers in a dispute between irrigators feuding over water in Pumpkin Creek.

    “I was thinking about Pumpkin Creek, but I didn’t have any visuals,” she said. “I’d filmed a meeting of farmers years ago, but the camera went south on me and there was no way I could recover the footage.”

    Then synchronicity struck. McMillen’s bookkeeper was from the Spear T Ranch, and the family over time had saved all of the newspaper clippings about the fight.

    “That helped me tie it all together,” McMillen said. “You just have to be able to listen and when you hear something say ‘What was that?’”

    And the hunger for investigative work is what fuels most of her projects.

    “I have to tell myself to stop, take notes and check things out,” she said. “I hear stories all the time and I’d love to go chase them, but I have to be responsible and pay my bills.”

    McMillen said a lot of the project has been self-funded because she couldn’t kick the habit once a lead seemed promising.

    Newspapers also provided McMillen a window into the issues. As the “first draft of history,” clippings are featured at prominent portions of the film.

    “The Star-Herald is in a lot of these stories that I brought back from the past,” she said. “There was so much information that really help me understand what was going on at the time.”

    Another portion of the film is spent exploring contamination concerns, especially the 2015 fight against a Colorado company who sought permission to use an abandoned oil well in Sioux County as a wastewater disposal site. Sioux County landowners eventually won their appeal and state lawmakers reformed the process in which permits are granted.

    “I documented almost everything, and there is a lot of that in there, along with newspaper clippings” she said. “The physical thing is really important, because I couldn’t have told any of this story without the work of reporters from back in the 1800s on to the present day.”

    And those are the little things, McMillen said.

    “I saw articles where they hung effigies of law makers because they were going to shut the water off,” she said. “There’s always a fight about water. One guy will say ‘I was here first,’ and another guy will say, ‘hey I need that.’ And just because you were here first doesn’t mean you get to have all of it.”

    And over the course of making the film McMillen said that she’s learned that there needs to be change to protect and preserve not only the Valley’s greatest gift, but the way of life for Farmers and Ranchers who live here.

    “We’re going to have to look beyond what we’re calling ‘traditional practices,’” she said. “We can continue on the same track that we have been. We can’t keep expanding and still be able to sustain that.”

    It was her discussions with farmers that drove home the point for her.

    “I think we need to look at it as growing food,” she said. “I would like us to grow more food that doesn’t have to be shipped, because we’re going to have to address climate change and reverse it.”

    And at the same time, caution needs to be exercised when employing solutions, she said.

    “What we think are the solutions are not always the best way of doing things,” she said. “We can’t just blindly forge ahead just because we think it’s a good idea. At the time we’re looking at sustainable energy, we’re also wanting to put it in places that will never be the same.

    “We need to work within the infrastructure we already have and not go to condemning land so that we can use it for transmission lines or wind farms. There is plenty of space for that without tearing up areas that can’t be returned to their natural state.”

    National Climate Assessment: Great Plains’ Ogallala Aquifer drying out — @NOAA

    Ogallala Aquifer. This map shows changes in Ogallala water levels from the period before the aquifer was tapped to 2015. Declining levels appear in red and orange, and rising levels appear in shades of blue. The darker the color, the greater the change. Gray indicates no significant change. Although water levels have actually risen in some areas, especially Nebraska, water levels are mostly in decline, namely from Kansas southward. Image credit: Nation Climate Assessment 2018

    From NOAA (Michon Scott):

    The Ogallala Aquifer underlies parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. From wheat and cows to corn and cotton, the regional economy depends almost exclusively on agriculture irrigated by Ogallala groundwater. But according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), producers are extracting water faster than it is being replenished, which means that parts of the Ogallala Aquifer should be considered a nonrenewable resource.

    This map shows changes in Ogallala water levels from the period before the aquifer was tapped to 2015. Declining levels appear in red and orange, and rising levels appear in shades of blue. The darker the color, the greater the change. Gray indicates no significant change. Although water levels have actually risen in some areas, especially Nebraska, water levels are mostly in decline, namely from Kansas southward.

    In the early twentieth century, farmers converted large stretches of the Great Plains from grassland to cropland. Drought and stress on the soils led to the 1930s Dust Bowl. Better soil conservation and irrigation techniques tamed the dust and boosted the regional economy. In 2007, the market value from the Ogallala region’s agricultural products totaled roughly $35 billion. However, well outputs in the central and southern parts of the aquifer are declining due to excessive pumping, and prolonged droughts have parched the area, bringing back Dust Bowl-style storms, according to the NCA4. Global warming is likely to make droughts across the Ogallala region longer lasting and more intense over the next 50 years.

    The Agriculture chapter of NCA4 describes the risks and opportunities for resilience across the Ogallala region:

    “Recent advances in precision irrigation technologies, improved understanding of the impacts of different dryland and irrigation management strategies on crop productivity, and the adoption of weather-based irrigation scheduling tools as well as drought-tolerant crop varieties have increased the ability to cope with projected heat stress and drought conditions under climate change. However, current extraction for irrigation far exceeds recharge in this aquifer, and climate change places additional pressure on this critical water resource.”

    The RRWCD continues its partnership with Colorado NRCS in their continuous investment in water conservation, public meeting January 10, 2018

    From the Republican River Water Conservation District (Tim Davis) via The Julesberg Advocate:

    The Republican River Water Conservation District (RRWCD) acting through its Water Activity Enterprise (RRWCD-WAE) will again partner with NRCS to encourage water conservation and provide incentives to producers that voluntarily implement water conservation measures.

    Since the Ogallaa Aquifer Initiative (OAI) sunset with the end of the 2014 Farm Bill, the RRWCD will partner with NRCS through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to help producers transition from irrigated to drylands agriculture or grassland. The RRWCD founding will augment NRCS funding to producers that voluntarily agree to permanently retire irrigation wells and convert the irrigated cropland to drylands farming or grazing land.

    NRCS will provide approximately two hundred fifty dollars ($250.00) per acre to producers that enroll in the permanent water retirement program. The RRWCD will provide additional incentives of between six hundred ($600.00) and one thousand five hundred dollars ($1,500) per acre depending on the location of the well within the District boundary.

    Additional conservation practices may be appropriate on the converted acts. These practices will provide substantial water conservation and will help sustain the life of the aquifer. Recent research has suggested that in some cases higher capacity wells can reduce water consumption by as as much as twenty percent (20%) with little or no effect on the overall profitability…

    Water conservation measures such as weather stations, soil moisture monitoring and conversion from sprinkler irrigation to a more efficient irrigation system can contribute substantially to prolonging the life of the quiver, while maintaining a strong irrigated agricultural economy. The EQIP program also provides these additional voluntary incentive based tools that all producers can use to prolong the life of this aquifer.

    The RRWCD has consulted with groundwater management districts, the Water Preservation Partnership, and others to develop strategies to assist producers through financial incentives to voluntarily reduce water consumption. Several surveys distributed throughout the District to producers have indicated that voluntary, incentive based programs were preferred over regulatory water restrictions. It is important that each and every irrigated agriculture producer evaluate their individual irrigation practices to determine if they can help reduce the impact on the aquifer by implementing one or more of these conservations practices.

    The deadline for application for EQIP is January 18, 2019 so please contact your local NRCS office at https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/site/co/home/ or the RRWCD office in Wray, Colorado, at 970-332-3552 as soon as possible if you wish to apply for conservation funding through this program.

    South Fork of the Republican River

    From The Yuma Pioneer:

    The Republican River Water Conservation District Board of Directors will have a public hearing on the proposed new water use fee policy during its regular quarterly meeting, Thursday, January 10, in Burlington.

    The meeting will be held at the Burlington Community and Educational Center, 340 S. 14th St., beginning at 10 a.m.

    The public hearing on the proposed new water use fee policy will be at 1 p.m.

    RRWCD General Manager Deb Daniel said the proposed policy would not change the fee for irrigation, while municipal and commercial wells would have a minimal reduction in the fee per acre feet pumped.

    Junior surface water right fees would be based on comparing the impact on compact compliance of diversions of surface water for irrigation as compared to the impact of groundwater withdrawals.

    Daniel said the proposed policy addresses the fees charged by the RRWCD for compact compliance, based on the impact each type of use and consumption has on the determination of Colorado’s compliance with the Republican River Compact as determined by the RRCA Accounting Procedures.

    Public comment will be heard immediately following the water use fee public hearing.

    Besides the regular reports, the board will hear a presentation from Mark Lengel about concerns on the South Fork. The board also will discuss South Fork Water Rights.

    For more information, please contact Daniel at 332-3552 or email her at deb.daniel@rrwcd.com.

    @NASA: Scarcity Of Water Will Be The Environmental Challenge Of The Century

    Groundwater storage trends for Earth’s 37 largest aquifers from UCI-led study using NASA GRACE data (2003 – 2013). Of these, 21 have exceeded sustainability tipping points and are being depleted, with 13 considered significantly distressed, threatening regional water security and resilience.
    Credits: UC Irvine/NASA/JPL-Caltech

    From PulseHeadlines.com (Pablo Luna):

    A recent NASA study was performed to track global freshwater trends from 2002 to 2016 by collecting from the NASA Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment. James Famiglietti, of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, explained, “What we are witnessing is major hydrologic change. We see for the first time a very distinctive pattern of the wetland areas of the world getting wetter, in the high latitudes and the tropics, and the dry areas in between getting drier. Within the dry areas, we see multiple hotspots resulting from groundwater depletion.” One of the areas that has been most affected is Antarctica, where 10% of its glaciers are in retreat.

    According to those involved with the study, there is “clear human fingerprint” on the global water cycle. NASA has a first-of-its-kind satellite, showing that over 30 parts of the globe show dramatic depletion of fresh water. “This report is a warning and an insight into a future threat. We need to ensure that investment in water keeps pace with industrialisation and farming. Governments need to get to grips with this,” said Jonathan Farr, a senior policy analyst at the charity WaterAid. Farr says, “We have been solving the problem of getting access to water resources since civilisation began. We know how to do it. We just need to manage it, and that has to be done at a local level.”

    Both the climate crisis and human activity are the two main factors causing water scarcity today, calling upon greater action and better water management by humans before the issue gets worse.

    The Great #Kansas Aqueduct: Solution or Folly from a Bygone Era? — Water Finance & Management

    Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

    From Water Finance & Management (Michael Warady):

    In 1982, the Army Corps of Engineers released the Plains Ogallala Aquifer Regional Resources Study, which detailed for the first time (in any official capacity) the cost and opportunity related to the construction of a 360-mile concrete aqueduct beginning at the Missouri River in the Northeastern part of Kansas and ending in Utica – traveling nearly three-quarters of the way across the state. This aqueduct would deliver approximately 3.4 million acre-ft (AF) of water annually (1 acre-ft = 325,851 gallons) to parched farmers and communities. In turn, the canal would require 15 pumping stations in order to rise nearly 1,750 ft in altitude to reach its ultimate, Utica reservoir.

    The cost? $18 billion up-front with an estimated $1 billion in annual ongoing expenses ($400 million in operational costs and $600 million in interest).
    The costs are exorbitant – resulting in a $470/AF price of new water for farmers who, according to a 2013 report by the US Department of Agriculture, currently pay approximately $47/AF for off-farm purchased water. Can an agricultural industry with shrinking margins due to increased competition and international trade tariffs handle a 10x increase in water prices?

    And yet, there remains something romantic about the Great Kansas Aqueduct. Arizona has its 336-mile Central Arizona Project; California has its 701-mile State Water Project; why shouldn’t Kansas have its Great Kansas Aqueduct? After all, as the Kansas Aqueduct Coalition has stated, “With sedimentation reducing water storage in the East, and the Ogallala being rapidly depleted in the West, Kansas stands to lose more than 37 percent of its water in 50 counties across the state by 2062, or an annual shortfall of 1.86 million acre-feet.”

    Thirty-six years after this project was first conceived in full, though, shovels and backhoes remain in their sheds as the Ogallala aquifer drops nearly two feet per year in some counties due to groundwater over pumping. If groundwater withdrawals continue at current rates, most of southwest Kansas will exhaust its water reserves within 25 to 50 years. One tends to think that in times of yesteryear, individuals would have begun construction on this project in February of 1982, begging for forgiveness later. But the time of unbridled infrastructure construction has passed and Kansas continues to stress its water resources.

    As one sits and considers the need for the Great Kansas Aqueduct, three questions come to mind: 1) does the Great Kansas Aqueduct solve a problem? Yes – it would increase water supplies for Western Kansas. 2) would it solve the problem for generations? Yes – it would likely be operational for decades. And 3) would it be cost-effective? Unfortunately, not. While the volume of water delivered to Western Kansas may increase, very few people would actually be able to afford it. In fact, the $18 billion estimated to build the Great Kansas Aqueduct does not even include the legal, economic, and ethical costs inherent to initiating eminent domain and forcibly removing people in the way of the canal off of their land.

    Legislation needed to change current boundaries of the Republican River Water Conservation District to include all depletions

    Map shows current water district boundary in red, proposed boundary in black. Blue area shows the Ogallala Aquifer. (Courtesy Republican River Water Conservation District)

    From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

    [Deb Daniels] told the commissioners her district is working with the Colorado legislature to redraw the boundaries of the RRWCD after it was discovered two years ago that the district’s borders didn’t match the Republican River’s drainage basin. That basin’s northwest border matches the South Platte’s southeast border, although experts differ on exactly where the dividing line is.

    The problem, Daniels said, is that there are wells in the southern area of the Republican basin that aren’t covered by the conservation district’s augmentation plan. That plan is necessary in order for Colorado to be in compliance with a 1943 water compact with Nebraska and Kansas that allocates water from the Republican River among the three states…

    Several hundred wells, mostly in Cheyenne and Kit Carson counties, have been found to be depleting the river aquifer, and so need to be brought into the RRWCD. Those well owners will then have to pay the per-acre fees to help pay for Colorado’s augmentation plan.

    Daniels said there are a few wells in Logan County that now are part of the Lower South Platte’s augmentation plan that would be taken into the Republican district, but because those wells already are covered by an augmentation plan, they wouldn’t be charged the Republican district’s fees.

    Joe Frank, contacted at the LSPWCD office after the meeting, said changing the Republican district’s boundary wouldn’t affect Lower’s boundary, as there is a narrow strip of property between the two district boundaries.

    “Right now we’re in a fact-finding mode, but we will make a recommendation to the legislature before the bill comes up next year,” Frank said.

    Burlington: Republican River Compact Use Rules meeting, Monday, August 13, 2018

    Downtown Burlington (2014) via Wikipedia.

    From The Yuma Pioneer:

    A public meeting will be held in Burlington on Monday to go over the state engineer’s Republican River Compact Use Rules.

    The meeting will be 10 a.m. at the Burlington Community and Education Center, 340 S. 14th St. State Engineer Kevin Rein and staff will provide updates involving the rule making.

    An advisory committee of volunteers met with the State Engineer’s Office monthly for a while to provide input. The committee has not met in quite some time as the state worked on various issues.

    Republican River Water Conservation District General Manager Deb Daniel explained the formulation of these “basin rules” came about as the Republican River Domain is larger than the RRWCD boundaries.

    The RRWCD was created through legislation in the Colorado Legislature early last decade, to assist the State of Colorado in coming up with ways to help bring the state into compliance with the 1942 Republican River Compact.

    Well owners within the RRWCD pay an assessment fee annually to help fund augmentation efforts, such as the creation of the compact compliance pipeline located at far east edge of Yuma County right by the state line with Nebraska. Many wells also have been retired through the CREP program, and surface water rights purchased — all in an effort to get the State of Colorado in compact compliance.

    Most of the wells located within the domain but outside the RRWCD are located south of Burlington and down into Cheyenne County.

    The wells owners have not been subjected to the assessment fee, but Daniel explained the wells still are factored into compact compliance. Those wells do not have an augmentation plan.

    Eventually, when these new rules are put into place with the Water Court, there possibly could be forced curtailment unless an augmentation plan is put in place. The wells could be brought into the RRWCD, and pay the annual assessment fee.

    Daniel said efforts to have a bill carried in the Colorado Legislature to change the RRWCD boundaries to match the Republican River Domain have not come to fruition.

    Any interested parties are invited to attend Monday’s public meeting.

    #Colorado agrees to $2 million payment to #Kansas to benefit the South Fork of the Republican River

    South Fork of the Republican River

    From the Associated Press via KOAA.com:

    Colorado has agreed to pay Kansas $2 million in a settlement resolving claims regarding Colorado’s past use of water under the Republican River Compact.

    Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer said in a news release Friday that the settlement is an investment in the basin to ensure a better future for Kansas water users…

    Under the provisions of the settlement , Kansas agreed to pursue “a good faith effort” to spend the money Colorado paid for the benefit of the South Fork of the Republican River Basin within Kansas.

    Colorado also agreed to pursue an effort to spend an additional $2 million by 2027 in the basin within Colorado.

    Understanding Falling Municipal Water Demand in a Small City Dependent on the Declining Ogallala Aquifer: Case Study of Clovis, New Mexico

    Clovis, New Mexico. Photo credit: Clovis and Curry County Chamber of Commerce

    Here’s the abstract from WorldScientific.com:

    Municipal water demand has declined over the past several decades in many large cities in the western United States. The same is true in Clovis, New Mexico, which is a small town in arid eastern New Mexico, whose sole water source is from the dwindling southern Ogallala Aquifer. Using premises-level monthly panel data from 2006 to 2015 combined with climate data and additional controls, we apply a fixed effects instrumental variable approach to estimate municipal water demand. Results indicate that utility-controlled actions such as price increases and rebates for xeriscaping and water saving technology have contributed to the decline. Overall water demand was found to be price inelastic and in the neighborhood of −0.50; however, premises receiving toilet and washing machine rebates were relatively more price inelastic and premises receiving landscaping rebates were more price elastic, though still inelastic. In addition, the average premises receiving its first toilet rebate reduced water use by 8.4%, washing machine rebates lowered use by 9.2%, and the average landscaping rebate reduced water use by less than 5.0%. From the utility’s perspective, and assuming a 5.0% discount rate, levelized cost analysis indicates that toilet rebates are 34% more cost effective than washing machine rebates and nearly 800% more cost effective than landscaping rebates over their respective lives per volume of water conserved. While this research focuses on Clovis, estimation results can be leveraged by other small to mid-sized cities experiencing declining supplies, confronting climate change, and with little opportunity for near-term supply enhancement.

    @WaterLawReview: Crisis on the High Plains: The Loss of America’s Largest Aquifer – the Ogallala

    Center pivot sprinklers in the Arikaree River basin to irrigate corn. Each sprinkler is supplied by deep wells drilled into the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer.

    From the University of Denver Water Law Review (Jeremy Frankel):

    The grain-growing region in the High Plains of America—known as America’s breadbasket—relies entirely on the Ogallala Aquifer. But long term unsustainable use of the aquifer is forcing states in the region to face the prospect of a regional economic disaster. As the High Plains states reach the verge of a major crisis, the states have taken different approaches to conservation with varying results.

    The Ogallala Aquifer supports an astounding one-sixth of the world’s grain produce, and it has long been an essential component of American agriculture. The High Plains region—where the aquifer lies—relies on the aquifer for residential and industrial uses, but the aquifer’s water is used primarily for agricultural irrigation. The agricultural demands for Ogallala water in the region are immense, with the aquifer ultimately being responsible for thirty percent of all irrigation in the United States. The Ogallala Aquifer has long been unable to keep up with these agricultural demands, as the aquifer recharges far slower than water is withdrawn.

    Aside from the obvious agricultural ramifications from the Ogallala’s depletion, recent studies have shown that groundwater depletion also has a severe effect on freshwater ecosystems in the region. Each state has had to confront the issue in their own way, but the depletion of the aquifer has become severe enough to warrant the attention of the federal government as well. At the state level, the focus has been on maintaining an orderly depletion of the aquifer rather than developing a plan for sustainable use. However, some states have achieved some level of success in slowing down the aquifer’s depletion. Kansas, for example, has recently achieved mild success by adopting a program that put conservation in the hands of the State’s farmers. On the other hand, Nebraska has seen more success than Kansas by being tougher on farmers and exercising its enforcement powers. The federal government has also set up financial and technical assistance for farmers who commit to conservation and is funding large-scale pipeline projects to bring in water to the more desperate areas of the High Plains.

    Some folks in SW #Kansas are pushing the “Great Canal of Kansas”

    Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

    From the Kansas News Service. (Ben Kuebrich) via the Hillsboro Free Press:

    Great Canal of Kansas

    Clayton Scott also uses the latest water technology on his farm in Big Bow. Yet he said that just using water carefully won’t be enough.

    He thinks any pumping limits severe enough to preserve the aquifer would dramatically cut back the region’s harvest. That would push up local grain prices, and without cheap grain, livestock feed yards would close, and meatpacking plants would follow.

    At its core, the western Kansas economy is built on irrigation.

    A 2015 study calculated that losses in irrigation could cost some 240,000 Kansans their jobs and wipe out $18.3 billion of yearly economic activity, or about 10 percent of the state economy.

    Scott and others in the region have their eyes on a more drastic solution to the water problem. Kansas could invest in a 360-mile series of canals and pumping stations to bring in water from the Missouri River.

    He knows it sounds extreme, but Arizona has already built a similarly sized aqueduct. The Central Arizona Project diverts water from the Colorado River and there’s been extensive research into building a similar canal across Kansas.

    “Arizona looked at their situation and decided, ‘We have no other choice,’ ” Scott said. “They estimate almost a trillion dollars of benefit to the economy of Arizona.”

    Arizona’s aqueduct has always been controversial. The federally funded canal remains at the center of multi-state disputes of water usage.

    Experts say that a generation later, the legal and regulatory hurdles of building a long-distance canal through Kansas only look more daunting.

    Water from the Colorado River is channeled through Arizona, much the way some people think it should be diverted from the Missouri River across Kansas.

    Pricey pipeline

    Still, Kansas and surrounding states have been considering aqueducts for a long time. A 1982 study came up with a plan to bring water from the Missouri River to a reservoir near Utica, Kansas, but nothing ever came of it. At the time, though, losing the Ogallala seemed like a distant prospect.

    In 2011, while western Kansas was in a drought and farmers struggled to pump enough water to keep their crops alive, the Missouri River was flooding. Scott says that sparked renewed interest in a canal.

    “It’s a long-term solution,” Scott said. “We can harvest the high flows of water off of the eastern rivers and bring them out here into the western High Plains, offset the droughts … and bring things into more of a balance.”

    In 2015, the Kansas Water Office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers re-assessed that 1982 study. The agencies estimated that, depending on the capacity of the canal, it would now cost between $5 billion and $20 billion to build.

    Because the water would have to be pumped uphill as it goes west, it could take more than $500 million a year in energy costs alone, for the largest-capacity canal. With interest costs from construction, the yearly tab could exceed $1.5 billion.

    At the time, the head of the water office said, “this thing we studied is unlikely to happen.” The costs would simply run too steep.

    A canal project would have other barriers. Although the Missouri river sometimes floods, it also experiences lows, and levels would have to be maintained to permit barge traffic. There would also be challenges displacing people in the path of the aqueduct. While a highway can be redirected to avoid a town, a canal’s path is more constrained by topography.

    At the same time, environmental issues could come both from taking water from the Missouri and in the path of any aqueduct. Upstream and downstream states on the waterway already tangle over how to manage the water. An effort to siphon away water would further complicate the situation.

    Scott knows the project would be massive, and massively controversial, but that’s why he’s talking about it now—before the Ogallala runs dry.

    An uncertain future

    At a conference in April, Kansas Secretary of Agricul­ture Jackie McClaskey said public support for an aqueduct is unlikely unless farmers show first that there’s no other way to water their crops.

    “Until we can show people that we are utilizing every drop of water in the best way possible, no one outside of this region is going to invest in a water transfer project,” McClaskey said.

    Clayton Scott says he isn’t looking for the rest of Kansas to bail out the farmers out west.

    Scott imagines the canal would be a federal project, similar to Arizona’s aqueduct. Water users would repay the costs of construction and maintenance through a water use fee.

    He also contends that an aqueduct could help a broader region.

    Scott says an aqueduct could extend out to Colo­rado’s Front Range to supply booming cities such as Denver and Colorado Springs that draw water off of the dwindling Colorado River. If they drank from Kansas’ aqueduct instead, that would leave more water to trickle down the Colorado, which extends out into water-starved southern California.

    A canal, advocates contend, could supply water at a fraction of the price that southern California farmers pay now and help alleviate shortages in that region.

    Scott’s interest in water transfer is common in southwest Kansas but far from universal. For example, Roth isn’t convinced.

    “It’s impractical and it’s one heck of a distraction,” Roth said. “Right now we need to concentrate on local conservation with what we do have, what we can do right now.”

    Ray Luhman, Northwest Water district manager, thinks the state should consider all options, including channeling water across the state.

    “The conversation needs to be had,” Luhman said. “But to, let’s say, mortgage your future on a project maybe 20 to 30 years from completion? We also need to look to something in the interim.”

    Ben Kuebrich reports for High Plains Public Radio in Garden City and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and HPPR covering health, education and politics.

    Recap of the first Ogallala Water Summit

    From The Hutchinson News (Chance Hoener):

    When early explorers Zebulon Pike and Francisco de Coronado came upon the High Plains, they described it as a desert — an impossible region to farm.

    Irrigation changed that. It allowed residents to pull water from the Ogallala Aquifer, and grow crops nearly anywhere. The first irrigation wells in Kansas were drilled east of Garden City in 1908.

    The Ogallala is a massive, underground sponge, spanning from South Dakota and Wyoming, down through the High Plains to west Texas and New Mexico. Over 27,000 of the total 35,000 wells with active water rights in Kansas overlie the Ogallala, with 87 percent used for irrigation.

    But decades of pumping water out, with little return, has taken its toll.

    After 110 years of drilling and draining, the world’s largest aquifer is drying up.

    The Ogallala is the primary source of water for western Kansas farms, ranches and some communities, but projections indicate several areas that will go dry within 25 to 50 years at current usage rates. Some regions in Haskell County may have a decade or less…

    The Ogallala Aquifer Summit was organized by Colorado State University’s Ogallala Water CAP Program — a coordinated agriculture project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture – National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The summit brought together scientists, government agents and producers from the eight states situated over the Ogallala to discuss shared challenges and current initiatives to preserve the aquifer.

    Conversations between states had a rocky start, partly because they were spurred out of litigation regarding the Republican River basin along the Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas borders. The conflict led to monthly meetings of the Republican River Compact Administration — comprised of one member from each state — to change the approach and improve water management.

    “No offense to those that are here, but I’m just excited to come to an interstate water conference that doesn’t have more lawyers than it does farmers and ranchers,” Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey said to applause from the summit crowd.

    Nebraska Natural Resources Program Director Jesse Bradley and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown joined McClaskey for the first panel of the summit, discussing the cultivation of interstate conversations.

    Brown joked that the whole problem was Nebraska’s fault — Nebraska native Frank Zybach invented center pivot irrigation while living in Colorado — and Bradley fired back that ‘you always blame the upstream state.’

    She credits interstate conversations regarding the Republican River as a critical factor for changing the tone of the discussion. Instead of fighting over the water, the group is now working together to preserve water.

    “The biggest way we learned this lesson is from the complete 180 we’ve done on the Republican River discussions,” McClaskey said. “In July 2014, we started meeting month-to-month and created a true, long-term agreement, and are using those lessons to expand to all the states.

    “Now, I would call my colleagues from Nebraska and Colorado friends, which may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a lot easier to solve a problem with a friend than with an enemy.”

    @Ogallala_water: Ogallala Aquifer Summit April 9-10, 2018

    High Plains aquifer water-level changes, predevelopment (about 1950) to 2015. Figure 1 from USGS SIR 2017-5040.(Public domain.)

    Click here for all the inside skinny and to register.

    Groundwater levels steady in western Kansas, decrease around Wichita — @KUNews

    Graphic via the University of Kansas.

    From the University of Kansas:

    Groundwater levels during 2017, on average, rose slightly or nearly broke even in western Kansas but fell in the Wichita area, according to preliminary data compiled by the Kansas Geological Survey. This was a reversal from 2016 when overall groundwater levels dropped in western Kansas and increased significantly near Wichita.

    The KGS — based at the University of Kansas — and the Division of Water Resources (DWR) of the Kansas Department of Agriculture annually measure levels in about 1,400 water wells in western and central Kansas. The collected data are used to monitor the condition and long-term trends of the High Plains aquifer, the state’s most valuable groundwater resource, as well as smaller deep and shallow aquifers.

    The High Plains aquifer is a network of water-bearing rocks that underlies parts of eight states and, in Kansas, comprises three individual aquifers—the far-reaching Ogallala aquifer that makes up the majority of the High Plains aquifer, the Equus Beds around Wichita and Hutchinson, and the Great Bend Prairie aquifer in the center of the state. Ninety percent of the measured wells draw from these three aquifers.

    Water level changes or stability in the Ogallala aquifer in western Kansas correspond primarily with the amount of water withdrawn for irrigation, which in turn is influenced by the rate and timing of precipitation.

    “Much of the western border of Kansas and eastern Colorado saw above normal precipitation patterns in 2017, especially through most of the growing season,” said Brownie Wilson, KGS water-data manager. “As a consequence, water levels were at or above the 2016 levels in much of the region.”

    Water level increases in western Kansas mainly occur when the levels in wells rebound as pumping slows. Recharge — water seeping down from the surface — is negligible in western Kansas. In central Kansas, where the aquifer is shallower and average precipitation is higher, recharge can make a difference.

    “For areas that have higher local recharge capabilities, such as along and north of the Arkansas River in the Equus Beds and Great Bend Prairie aquifer, precipitation generally influences both pumping and recharge,” Wilson said. “There you can get large swings in declines and rises from year to year.”

    The 2017 growing season around the Equus Beds was fairly dry, which led to low recharge and higher withdrawal for irrigation, industry and municipal water supplies. Consequently, the Equus Beds declined nearly 2 feet. The Great Bend Prairie aquifer, which encompasses Great Bend, Kinsley, Greensburg and Pratt, fared better with an increase of about a quarter of a foot.

    Most of the wells in the network monitored by the KGS and DWR are within the boundaries of the state’s five Groundwater Management Districts (GMDs), which are organized and governed by area landowners and local water users to address water-resource issues.

    In Southwest Kansas GMD 3, average levels dropped just 0.05 feet, the lowest decline there since since the state began administrating the water-level program in 1996. In comparison, the average level fell a total of 23 feet over the previous 10 years.

    “Water levels were notably higher in Morton County and along and north of the Arkansas River,” Wilson said. “Still, there were localized areas in the GMD that experienced declines of 1 to 3 feet.”

    Even with better overall measurement results in the region for the year, the aquifer is nearly depleted in places.

    Wells monitored in GMD 3 are drilled into the Ogallala aquifer except in a few areas where they draw from the deeper Dakota aquifer. The district includes all or part of Grant, Haskell, Gray, Finney, Stanton, Ford, Morton, Stevens, Seward, Hamilton, Kearny and Meade counties.

    Another rare water-related event in the region occurred in the summer of 2017 when the Arkansas River flowed in Garden City. The river there has been mainly dry for decades due to high water use and less river flow from Colorado. When there is surface water in the river, it interacts with groundwater in an adjacent shallow alluvial aquifer.

    Western Kansas GMD 1 experienced a slight drop of 0.19 feet in 2017 following a 0.55 feet in 2016. Although decreases there have been less drastic than farther south, annual levels have risen only twice since 1996. The GMD includes portions of Wallace, Greeley, Wichita, Scott and Lane counties, where the majority of wells are drilled into the Ogallala aquifer.

    Northwest Kansas GMD 4 had an average increase in water levels of 0.33 feet after falling slightly in all but two year since 1996. GMD 4 covers Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan and parts of Cheyenne, Rawlins, Decatur, Graham, Wallace, Logan and Gove counties. Groundwater there is pumped almost exclusively from the Ogallala aquifer and shallow alluvial sources associated with streams.

    Big Bend GMD 5 had an average increase of 0.26 feet following an increase of 0.88 feet in 2016. Since 1996, annual levels there rose nine times and fell 13 times. The GMD is centered on the Great Bend Prairie aquifer underlying Stafford and Pratt counties and parts of Barton, Pawnee, Edwards, Kiowa, Reno and Rice counties.

    Equus Beds GMD 2, a major source of water for Wichita, Hutchinson and surrounding towns experienced a decline of 1.93 feet, which followed an increase of 2.08 feet in 2016. Since 1996, annual levels there rose nine times and dropped 13 times. The GMD covers portions of Reno, Sedgwick, Harvey and McPherson counties.

    “Even with the big declines in GMD 2, this is one of the best years we’ve seen in quite a long time,” Wilson said.

    The KGS measures approximately 570 wells in western Kansas each January, and DWR staff from field offices in Stockton, Garden City and Stafford measure about 220, 224 and 360 wells in western and central Kansas, respectively. Most of the wells, spread over 48 counties, are used for irrigation and have been measured for decades.

    Measurements are taken primarily in January when water levels are least likely to fluctuate due to irrigation. Infrequently, however, later-than-normal pumping during dry conditions may affect measurement results.

    The results are provisional and subject to revision based on additional analysis. Data by well will be available in late February at http://www.kgs.ku.edu/Magellan/WaterLevels/index.html.
    The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. The university’s mission is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities and making discoveries that change the world. The KU News Service is the central public relations office for the Lawrence campus.

    @NSF: How much water flows into agricultural irrigation? New study provides 18-year water use record

    Here’s the release from the National Science Foundation (Cheryl Dybas/Val Ostrowski):

    Irrigation for agriculture is the largest use of fresh water around the globe, but precise records and maps of when and where water is applied by farmers are difficult to locate. Now a team of researchers has discovered how to track water used in agriculture.

    In a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the researchers detail their use of satellite images to produce annual maps of irrigation. The findings, the scientists said, will help farmers, water resource managers and others understand agricultural irrigation choices and make better water management decisions.

    “We want to know how human activities are having an impact on the environment,” said hydrogeologist David Hyndman of Michigan State University (MSU), principal investigator of the project. “Irrigation nearly doubles crop yields and increases farmer incomes, but unsustainable water use for irrigation is resulting in depletion of groundwater aquifers around the world. The question is: ‘How can we best use water?'”

    The paper highlights the need to know when and where irrigation is occurring to effectively manage water resources.

    The project focuses on an economically important agricultural region of the central U.S.–the Republican River Basin–that overlies portions of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, and provides surface water and groundwater to the High Plains Aquifer. The team found that irrigation in this area roughly doubled between 2002 and 2016.

    Water use in this region can be complicated because it is regulated to preserve stream flow into Kansas in accordance with the Republican River Compact of 1942.

    “Previously, we knew what farms were equipped to irrigate, but not which fields were actually irrigated in any particular year,” said Jillian Deines, also of MSU and the paper’s lead author. “Our irrigation maps provide this information over 18 years and can be used to understand the factors that contribute to irrigation decisions.”

    The researchers used Google Earth Engine, a cloud-computing platform that makes large-scale satellite and environmental data analyses available to the public, to quantify changes in irrigation from year to year–an important finding for farmers, crop consultants and policymakers working to improve the efficiency of irrigation.

    Google Earth Engine has been an asset for computing the large number of satellite images needed, the scientists said. “It allows researchers to use consistent methods to examine large regions through time,” Deines said.

    The project, which also involves MSU research associate Anthony Kendall, is supported by the joint National Science Foundation (NSF)-USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Water, Sustainability and Climate (WSC) program and the joint NSF-NIFA Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program.

    “Knowing what to plant, how much land to plant, and how much irrigation water is necessary to support a crop through harvest has been a challenge for farmers throughout time,” said Tom Torgersen, NSF program officer for WSC and INFEWS. “Farmers can now envision a future where models will provide options to help guide decisions for greater efficiency and crop productivity.”

    Program managers at USDA-NIFA said that demand for agricultural products will likely increase in the future, while water for irrigation may decrease due to water quality issues and competitive uses.

    The Republican River Basin researchers “leveraged new computing power to handle the ‘Big Data’ of all available Landsat satellite scenes, and developed irrigation maps that help explain human decisions about irrigation water use,” said Jim Dobrowolski, program officer in NIFA’s Division of Environmental Systems. The maps hold the promise, he said, of the ability to make future water use predictions.

    A NASA graduate fellowship program award also funded the research.

    High Plains Aquifer pumping is impacting surface water and native fish

    High Plains Aquifer via Colorado State University.

    From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

    The agricultural overpumping from thousands of wells continues despite decades of warnings from researchers that the aquifer — also known as the Ogallala, the world’s largest underground body of fresh water — is shrinking.

    Even if farmers radically reduced pumping, the latest research finds, the aquifer wouldn’t refill for centuries. Farmers say they cannot handle this on their own.

    But there is no agreement among the eight affected states (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, South Dakota) to try to save the aquifer. And state rules allow total depletion.

    Republican River Basin by District

    In fact, Colorado officials faced with legal challenges from Kansas over dwindling surface water in the Republican River have found that their best option to comply with a 1942 compact is to take more water out of the aquifer. The state bought wells from farmers during the past decade and has been pumping out 11,500 acre-feet of water a year, enough to satisfy a small city, delivering it through a $60 million, 12-mile pipeline northeast of Wray to artificially resuscitate the river.

    The overpumping reflects a pattern, seen worldwide, where people with knowledge that they’re exceeding nature’s limits nevertheless cling to destructive practices that hasten an environmental backlash.

    The depletion of the High Plains Aquifer has been happening for decades, according to bulletins U.S. Geological Survey has put out since 1988. Colorado farmers this year pumped groundwater out of 4,000 wells, state records show, siphoning as much as 500 gallons a minute from each well to irrigate roughly 580,000 acres — mostly to grow corn, a water-intensive crop.

    The depth where groundwater can be tapped has fallen by as much as 100 feet in eastern Colorado, USGS data show. That means pump motors must work harder to pull up the same amount of water, using more energy — raising costs for farmers. The amount of water siphoned from the aquifer since 1950 to irrigate farm fields across the eight states tops 273 million acre-feet (89 trillion gallons) — about 70 percent of the water in Lake Erie.

    On one hand, the industrial center-pivot irrigation techniques perfected after World War II have brought consistency to farming by tapping the “sponge” of saturated sediment that links the aquifer to surface water in streams and rivers. America’s breadbasket produces $35 billion of crops a year. On the other hand, intense irrigation is breaking ecosystems apart.

    Overpumping has dried up 358 miles of surface rivers and streams across a 200-square-mile area covering eastern Colorado, western Kansas and Nebraska, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife-backed researchers from Colorado State University and Kansas State University who published a peer-reviewed report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers also determined that, if farmers keep pumping water at the current pace, another 177 miles of rivers and streams will be lost before 2060…

    Disappearing fish species — minnows, suckers, catfish that had evolved to endure periodic droughts — signal to biologists that ecological effects may be reaching a tipping point.

    The amount of water held in the aquifer under eastern Colorado decreased by 19.6 million acre-feet — 6.4 trillion gallons — from 1950 until 2015, USGS records show. That’s an average loss of 300,000 acre-feet a year. Between 2011 and 2015, records show, the water available under Colorado in the aquifer decreased by 3.2 million acre-feet — an annual average shrinkage of 800,000 acre-feet. Climate change factors, including rainfall, play into the rate of the drawdown…

    They say they’re trying. They’ve reduced the land irrigated in eastern Colorado by 30,000 acres since 2006. They plan to retire another 25,000 acres over the next decade, said Rod Lenz, president of the Republican River Water Conservation District, who for years has advocated use of technology to grow more crops with less water…

    Farmer and cattleman Robert Boyd, a leader of the Arikaree Groundwater Management District, said the federal government should intervene to ensure survival of High Plains agriculture…

    Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

    He pointed to proposals to divert water from the Missouri River Basin and move it westward through pipelines across the Great Plains…

    But drawing down the aquifer does not violate any law in Colorado. The state engineer’s office monitors well levels and requires permits for wells, limiting the number of acres a farmer can irrigate. But there’s no hard limit on how much water can be pumped…

    [Mike] Sullivan and state engineer Kevin Rein emphasized that thousands of acres no longer are irrigated. “And there need to be some more retirements of land to get us into a more balanced situation,” Sullivan said.

    They defended Colorado’s practice of pumping more groundwater out of the aquifer, saying this is necessary to comply with the Republican River Compact. Disputes over river flows have risen as far as the U.S. Supreme Court and Colorado’s legal obligations to deliver water to Nebraska and Kansas are clear.

    Solving the problem of the declining Ogallala aquifer: “It’s for the generation that’s not here” — Dwane Roth

    The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

    From The Hutchinson News (Amy Bickel):

    Because of technology, [Dwane] Roth is working to embrace what might seem like an unfathomable concept in these parts – especially when you can’t see what is happening underground.

    Sometimes the crop isn’t thirsty.

    “It’s difficult to shut off,” Roth said. “But I called my soil moisture probe guy. He said the whole profile was full and it was only the top 2 inches that was actually dry. So there was no need to turn that irrigation engine on and pump from the Ogallala.”

    Now he is hoping to change the mindset of his peers across a landscape where corn is king and the Ogallala Aquifer – the ocean underneath the High Plains – has been keeping the decades-old farm economy going on the semi-arid Plains.

    At least it is for now.

    Underlying eight states across the Great Plains, the Ogallala provides water to about one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle production in the United States. It’s also a primary drinking water supply for residents throughout the High Plains.

    But the aquifer that gives life to these fields is declining. It took 6,000 years to fill the Ogallala Aquifer from glacier melt. It has taken just 70 years of irrigation to put the western Kansas landscape into a water crisis.

    An economy centered on water is drying up.

    With his own water levels declining, Roth wants to make sure there is water for the next generation, including his nephews who recently returned to the farm.

    On this hot, summer day, water seeped out of a high-tech irrigation system he is testing on his Finney County farm. Soil probes are scattered about, telling him what is happening below the surface.

    Roth also has pledged to the state to cut back his usage by 15 percent through changing farming practices and implementing new technology.

    He wants to make a difference, but, he stressed, he can’t slow the decline alone.

    For the past two years, Roth’s fields have been part of a closely watched demonstration project aimed at showing farmers how to use less irrigation water on their crops. Now he he is taking it a step further.

    With some areas in northern Finney County declining by more than 70 feet since 2005, Roth is helping spearhead a regional effort to curtail pumping through a Local Enhanced Management Area. LEMAs were implemented five years ago as a tool to extend the life of the state’s water resources.

    He’s not the only one looking toward the future. A small but growing group of irrigators are considering different tools to cutback water use. Some are implementing technology. Some are looking at LEMAs. Others are forming their own, farm-wide plans for mandatory cutbacks.

    “It’s for the kids you don’t see yet,” Roth said of why he’s doing this. “It’s for the generation that’s not here.”

    Ogallala aquifer via USGS

    Stabilizing water levels in [High Plains Aquifer] possible, survey shows — @KUnews

    Graphic via the Kansas Geological Survey.

    Here’s the release from the University of Kansas:

    For at least the next one to two decades, irrigators in western Kansas may not have to cut groundwater use nearly as drastically as once thought to stem declines in the High Plains aquifer, according to water experts at the Kansas Geological Survey based at the University of Kansas.

    Most water in western Kansas is drawn from the expansive High Plains aquifer, an underground network of water-bearing sediments whose main component is the Ogallala aquifer. Underlying portions of eight states, the High Plains aquifer is the primary source of irrigation, municipal, industrial and domestic water for western and central Kansas.

    As groundwater pumping from the aquifer increased significantly over the last 70 years, groundwater levels have fallen precipitously in some parts of the aquifer compared with pre-pumping levels. Such declines will continue unless pumping is reduced.

    The critical question is how much should pumping be reduced to make a significant impact on the decline rate. To help irrigators with that question, KGS scientists developed a method to determine how much of a reduction in water use would be needed to achieve a specific decline rate or even stabilize water levels in the aquifer.

    “We came up with a new approach for estimating the impact pumping reductions have on the rate of water-level declines,” said Jim Butler, KGS senior scientist and geohydrology section chief. “It’s tailor-made for the High Plains aquifer in Kansas, where groundwater is pumped mainly during the growing season, and exploits the great groundwater data we have in the state.”

    Scientists originally predicted groundwater use might have to be reduced 75 percent or more to maintain the aquifer in western Kansas at or near current water levels. Based on their new analyses, Butler and his colleagues assert that can be achieved with just 25 percent to 45 percent reductions in most areas. Promising results for irrigators who reduced pumping at those lower levels have already been seen in one area of northwestern Kansas.

    In mid-July, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback asked Butler to accompany him to present the KGS findings to a group in Hoxie in Sheridan County, where local irrigators had initiated a Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, to reduce usage on a voluntary basis. Water users within the LEMA’s boundaries created a plan to reduce pumping in a way that would not hinder crop production.

    Actions that can be taken to achieve reductions include shutting off irrigation pivots when it rains, growing more drought-resistant crops and growing a greater variety of crops. Technologies such as soil-moisture probes that indicate when irrigation is or isn’t needed and high-efficiency irrigation systems that lose less water to evaporation have made reduction efforts easier.

    Although members of the Sheridan County, or SD-6, LEMA were aiming to reduce pumping by 20 percent, in actuality they achieved a 35 percent reduction over four years.

    “The result is that the decline rate there has gone from about 2 feet per year to about 5 inches per year without affecting the bottom line of producers in the area,” Butler said. “That’s a big deal.”

    However, water levels, which have dropped as much as 80 feet in southwest Kansas since just 1996, will never be restored to pre-pumping levels.

    “Realistically, we are talking about reducing the rate of decline or stabilizing water levels,” Butler said. “Replenishment of the aquifer is really not in the cards.”

    Even if pumping were stopped completely, it would take hundreds of years to recharge the aquifer.

    “The hope is that the success of the SD-6 LEMA will inspire others to follow suit,” Butler said.

    The SD-6 LEMA is the only one implemented in the state so far, although LEMAs are under consideration elsewhere. On the trip to western Kansas with the governor, Butler also presented the KGS findings to an interested group of irrigators north of Garden City. KGS analysis shows that a 28 percent reduction in pumping in their area would stabilize water levels.

    Besides encompassing the Ogallala aquifer, the High Plains aquifer includes the smaller Equus Beds aquifer around Wichita and Hutchinson and Great Bend Prairie aquifer in the vicinity of Great Bend, Kinsley, Greensburg and Pratt. Because the central part of the state generally receives more annual precipitation than far-western Kansas, stable water levels appear to be attainable in the Equus Beds and Great Bend Prairie with pumping reductions of less than 10 percent.

    The KGS researchers’ new approach to estimating pumping reductions was inspired by groundwater flow patterns observed in the real-time data from several wells they monitor continuously. Results found with the approach are based on pumping data recorded by flow meters that the state of Kansas requires on all nondomestic wells as well as water-level data collected annually by the KGS and the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources (DWR) from more than 1,400 wells in western and central Kansas.