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.”