Ogallala Aquifer: “We’re burning up our savings account” — Jay Garetson

Map sources: Houston, Natalie. 2011. Hydrogeologist, Texas Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey. Personal communication, October 2011. Houston, Natalie, Amanda Garcia, and Eric Strom. 2003. Selected Hydrogeologic Datasets for the Ogallala Aquifer, Texas. Open File Report 2003-296. August 2003.
Map sources:
Houston, Natalie. 2011. Hydrogeologist, Texas Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey. Personal communication, October 2011.
Houston, Natalie, Amanda Garcia, and Eric Strom. 2003. Selected Hydrogeologic Datasets for the Ogallala Aquifer, Texas. Open File Report 2003-296. August 2003.

From the Las Vegas Daily Sun (Ian James):

By permanently barring the use of two wells in an area where farmers rely on the Ogallala Aquifer to grow corn, the judge concluded the Garetson family’s senior water right had been “impaired” by their neighbor – a company that holds a junior water right.

“What made this case so important is the precedent that is now set,” said Jay Garetson, who filed the lawsuit in 2012 together with his brother Jarvis. The Garetsons have said they sued not only to defend their livelihood but also to press the state to enforce its water laws, and to call attention to the urgent need for action to preserve the aquifer.

“Our goal was to force this to the forefront,” Garetson said in an interview on Wednesday. “The best-case scenario would be it forces people to recognize that the status quo is no longer an option.”

Kansas’ “first-in-time, first-in-right” water rights system gives priority to those who have been using their wells the longest. And farmers are actually using much less water than they would be permitted under the system of appropriated groundwater rights established decades ago.

But with aquifers levels dropping and a limited supply left that can be economically extracted for farming, the Garetsons and others argue that the state and water districts should step in to establish limits on pumping…

Garetson said the decision should help bring order to a chaotic situation, and he hopes the case will be a catalyst for management of groundwater. He said he thinks the local groundwater district should establish a water budget and institute a sort of “cap-and-trade” system, in which water use would be scaled back based on established rights and could be sold between farmers, thereby allowing the market to sort out the scarcity problem.

He thinks such a system could serve as a model across the Ogallala Aquifer and in other areas of the country where aquifers are declining due to excessive pumping.

Garetson has seen some wells go dry on his farm, where he and his brother grow corn and sorghum. And he acknowledges his own pumping contributes to what is effectively the “mining” of groundwater.

He wants state officials and the region’s water managers to establish limits to move “in the direction of sustainability” – even though that’s a high bar to reach given the area’s limited water supplies and slow rate of aquifer recharge.

Garetson said he hopes the court decision will help Kansas farmers move away from the pattern of unchecked pumping that is draining the aquifer. Under the status quo, he said, “we’re actually just borrowing from the future. We’re burning up our savings account.”

Morgan Conservation District’s 62nd Annual Meeting, February 9th, 2017

View of runoff, also called nonpoint source pollution, from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Topsoil as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants run off unprotected farm fields when heavy rains occur. (Credit: Lynn Betts/U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service/Wikimedia Commons)
View of runoff, also called nonpoint source pollution, from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Topsoil as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants run off unprotected farm fields when heavy rains occur. (Credit: Lynn Betts/U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service/Wikimedia Commons)

From the Morgan Conservation District via The Fort Morgan Times (Angela Werner):

Morgan Conservation District’s 62nd annual meeting will be held on February 9th.

It will be held at the Fort Morgan Home Plate Restaurant, 19873 U.S. Hwy. 34. Breakfast will be at 8 a.m. and the meeting will start at 9 a.m. The cost of the meeting will be $25 in advance, and that will cover the annual meeting, annual membership in Morgan Conservation District, and free breakfast that morning.

If you do not RSVP in advance, and show up on the day of the meeting, please be advised that the cost will be the same, however breakfast will not be free, due to our needing to order the food in advance. Our keynote speakers, Bill Hammerich and Andrew Neuhart.

Bill Hammerich has served as the CEO of Colorado Livestock Association (CLA) for the past fourteen years. He grew up on a cattle and farming operation in Western Colorado and he attended CSU where he graduated with a degree in Agricultural Economics. Following graduation, he began working with Monfort of Colorado, then Farr Feeders and was with the Sparks Companies before joining CLA in 2002.

His time spent in the cattle feeding industry provided him not only with an understanding of how to feed cattle, but also the importance of protecting and sustaining the environment in which one operates.

Bill and his wife Sabrina live in Severance, Colorado and have two grown children, Justin and Jessica, and four grandsons.

Andrew Neuhart completed both a B.S. in Natural Resource Management and an M.S. in Watershed Science at CSU. After spending two years assisting in precision farming studies in the San Luis Valley for the USDA Soil, Plant and Nutrient Research team, Andrew went to work for the State of Colorado’s Water Quality Control Division. For 9 years with the WQCD, Andrew led a Permitting Unit for discharge permits under the Clean Water Act, for both industrial and domestic wastewater treatment facilities. Working for Brown and Caldwell over the last 4 years, Andrew assists clients with regulatory issues under the Clean Water Act, and has been working with the Ag Task Force, part of the Colorado Monitoring Framework, to get the word out regarding nutrient regulations and their impacts to agricultural operations.

Mr. Hammerich and Mr. Neuhart will be speaking about Regulation 85.

Regulation 85 establishes requirements for organizations holding a NPDES permit and with the potential to discharge either nitrogen or phosphorus to begin planning for nutrient treatment based on treatment technology and monitoring both effluents and streams for nitrogen and phosphorus.

The data from these efforts is designed to better characterize nutrient sources, characterize nutrient conditions and effects around the state and to help inform future regulatory decisions regarding nutrients. Please come to the meeting and learn more from our very knowledgeable keynote speakers!

Please RSVP as soon as possible to Angela at morganconservationdistrict@gmail.com or call 970-427-3362. Space is limited.

@NatGeo: As Groundwater Dwindles, a Global Food Shock Looms

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.
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 National Geographic (Cheryl Katz):

By mid-century, says a new study, some of the biggest grain-producing regions could run dry.

Rising temperatures and growing demands for thirsty grains like rice and wheat could drain much of the world’s groundwater in the next few decades, new research warns.

Nearly half of our food comes from the warm, dry parts of the planet, where excessive groundwater pumping to irrigate crops is rapidly shrinking the porous underground reservoirs called aquifers. Vast swaths of India, Pakistan, southern Europe, and the western United States could face depleted aquifers by midcentury, a recent study finds — taking a bite out of the food supply and leaving as many as 1.8 billion people without access to this crucial source of fresh water.

To forecast when and where specific aquifers around the globe might be drained to the point that they’re unusable, Inge de Graaf, a hydrologist at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, developed a new model simulating regional groundwater dynamics and withdrawals from 1960 to 2100. She found that California’s agricultural powerhouses — the Central Valley, Tulare Basin and southern San Joaquin Valley, which produce a plentiful portion of the nation’s food — could run out of accessible groundwater as early as the 2030s. India’s Upper Ganges Basin and southern Spain and Italy could be used up between 2040 and 2060. And the southern part of the Ogallala aquifer under Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico could be depleted between 2050 and 2070.

“The areas that will run into trouble the soonest are areas where we have a lot of demand and not enough surface water available,” says de Graaf, who presented her results last week at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

Farming has mushroomed across arid regions like these in the past half-century. With scarce rains and few rivers and lakes, they depend on water pumped up from underground. Since 1960, excessive pumping has already used up enough groundwater worldwide to nearly fill Lake Michigan, estimates de Graaf, who projects that with climate change and population growth, future groundwater use will soar. She considers an aquifer depleted when its water level falls below a depth of around 300 feet, at which point it becomes too expensive for most users to pump up.

Shrinking groundwater supplies will dent the world’s food supply, says de Graaf’s co-author Marc Bierkens, a hydrologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Bierkens points out that 40 percent of global food production now relies on irrigation with groundwater. If the amount of available groundwater were cut in half, for example, he estimates that farm output would drop by roughly 6 percent—reflecting the portion that’s absolutely dependent on unsustainable groundwater use.

“It’s not that the whole population will starve,” says Bierkens, “but it will have an impact on the food chain and food prices.”

USGS: Groundwater-flow model of the northern High Plains aquifer in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming


Here’s the abstract from the USGS (Steven M. Peterson, Amanda T. Flynn, and Jonathan P. Traylor):

The High Plains aquifer is a nationally important water resource underlying about 175,000 square miles in parts of eight states: Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Droughts across much of the Northern High Plains from 2001 to 2007 have combined with recent (2004) legislative mandates to elevate concerns regarding future availability of groundwater and the need for additional information to support science-based water-resource management. To address these needs, the U.S. Geological Survey began the High Plains Groundwater Availability Study to provide a tool for water-resource managers and other stakeholders to assess the status and availability of groundwater resources.

A transient groundwater-flow model was constructed using the U.S. Geological Survey modular three-dimensional finite-difference groundwater-flow model with Newton-Rhapson solver (MODFLOW–NWT). The model uses an orthogonal grid of 565 rows and 795 columns, and each grid cell measures 3,281 feet per side, with one variably thick vertical layer, simulated as unconfined. Groundwater flow was simulated for two distinct periods: (1) the period before substantial groundwater withdrawals, or before about 1940, and (2) the period of increasing groundwater withdrawals from May 1940 through April 2009. A soil-water-balance model was used to estimate recharge from precipitation and groundwater withdrawals for irrigation. The soil-water-balance model uses spatially distributed soil and landscape properties with daily weather data and estimated historical land-cover maps to calculate spatial and temporal variations in potential recharge. Mean annual recharge estimated for 1940–49, early in the history of groundwater development, and 2000–2009, late in the history of groundwater development, was 3.3 and 3.5 inches per year, respectively.

Primary model calibration was completed using statistical techniques through parameter estimation using the parameter estimation suite of software with Tikhonov regularization. Calibration targets for the groundwater model included 343,067 groundwater levels measured in wells and 10,820 estimated monthly stream base flows at streamgages. A total of 1,312 parameters were adjusted during calibration to improve the match between calibration targets and simulated equivalents. Comparison of calibration targets to simulated equivalents indicated that, at the regional scale, the model correctly reproduced groundwater levels and stream base flows for 1940–2009. This comparison indicates that the model can be used to examine the likely response of the aquifer system to potential future stresses.

Mean calibrated recharge for 1940–49 and 2000–2009 was smaller than that estimated with the soil-water-balance model. This indicated that although the general spatial patterns of recharge estimated with the soil-water-balance model were approximately correct at the regional scale of the Northern High Plains aquifer, the soil-water-balance model had overestimated recharge, and adjustments were needed to decrease recharge to improve the match of the groundwater model to calibration targets. The largest components of the simulated groundwater budgets were recharge from precipitation, recharge from canal seepage, outflows to evapotranspiration, and outflows to stream base flow. Simulated outflows to irrigation wells increased from 7 percent of total outflows in 1940–49 to 38 percent of 1970–79 total outflows and 49 percent of 2000–2009 total outflows.

Dipping straws into the Ogallala — The Hutchinson News

From The Hutchinson News (Jim Schinstock):

“Pulling a well” was one of the many chores I had growing up on a farm in western Kansas. Usually this involved pulling the pump to the surface, changing the leathers and cleaning the sand screen, then lowering the pump through the pipe back to the water below. Sometimes it involved working on the gears on the windmill head some 20 or 25 feet above the ground. And once in a while we had to change out a pipe that had sprung a leak.

I haven’t pulled a well in over half a century, nor do I miss the experience. But back in those days, we had good sweet water at about 30 feet. Nowadays, wells have gotten deeper because the water table continues to get lower. The same 30-foot well would have to be redrilled to over 100 feet to reach water.

And that is because the Ogallala Aquifer can’t keep up with the demand for water. Since it takes about 480 gallons of water to raise and process a quarter-pound of beef, think of that number the next time you drive by a feedlot or go through a McDonald’s drive-thru.

The Ogallala, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, is an irregular, undulating sponge that soaks up rain and groundwater. The Ogallala holds about 2.9 billion acre-feet of water, roughly the same amount in Lake Huron. About two-thirds of the water lies beneath Nebraska, where the Ogallala is thickest and most saturated. Running south from Nebraska, the Ogallala meanders through seven states to Texas on the south end. All along its course, the Ogallala varies markedly in thickness and saturation levels. If you think of the Ogallala as a milkshake, the question becomes where to put your straws and how deep into the milkshake. Eventually the milkshake is empty.

The culprit in the draining of the Ogallala is irrigation, and the “straws” are all the wells poking into the aquifer. As demand for water exceeds supply, wells become more numerous and deeper. Clovis, New Mexico, currently uses 73 wells to provide less water than 28 wells delivered in 2000. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Many small towns and cities are in danger of, literally, “drying up.”

The eight states impacted by the Ogallala also have different rules for pumping from the aquifer. Texas has no regulations, and users can take as much water as they want, even selling it to others. Nebraska and Oklahoma require “reasonable use and shared rights,” with water rights shared proportionately to acreage. The remaining states – Kansas included – deny new applications and protect existing water rights by seniority.

And the beat goes on. From 2000 to 2008, the Ogallala declined at twice the rate of the previous decade. The aquifer lost, on average, 8.3 million acre-feet of water each year, roughly half the flow of the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon.

CSU-led team receives $10 million to study Ogallala Aquifer


From Colorado State University (Jason Kosovski):

Main source of agricultural and public water

For more than 80 years, the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest freshwater aquifer in the world, has been the main source of agricultural and public water for eastern Colorado and parts of seven other states in the Great Plains. Now, Colorado State University will take a leading role as part of a USDA-NIFA funded university consortium to address agricultural sustainability on the Ogallala Aquifer.

$10 million over four years

The consortium, comprised of CSU and seven other universities as well as USDA-ARS, has been awarded a USDA Water for Agriculture Challenge Area CAP grant which will provide $10 million over four years for innovative research and extension activities to address water challenges in the Ogallala Aquifer region.

The Ogallala, along with many of the world’s aquifers, is declining on a path many consider to be unsustainable. The Ogallala Aquifer region currently accounts for 30 percent of total crop and animal production in the U.S and more than 90 percent of the water pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer is used for irrigated agriculture.

Cutting-edge science and technology

“This project will integrate cutting-edge science and technology with an evaluation of policy and economic strategies as well as outreach to foster adaptive management,” said Meagan Schipanski, assistant professor of Soil and Crop Sciences, and the project’s lead investigator. “Our interdisciplinary team has an exceptional track record of work in the region, and this project offers an opportunity for much-needed integration and collaboration to extend the life of our shared groundwater resources.”

Meagan Schipanski, assistant professor of Soil and Crop Sciences
Meagan Schipanski, assistant professor of Soil and Crop Sciences

Tremendous impact on rural economies

“Irrigated crop production has a tremendous impact on rural economies and Colorado’s overall agricultural output,” said Ajay Menon, dean of the CSU College of Agricultural Sciences. “Professor Schipanski brings her leadership along with the collective expertise of the CSU scientists to a team of Land Grant University researchers who are positioned to make a major impact on our understanding of the aquifer system by determining what approaches can improve the productivity and resiliency of this important region.”

The multi-disciplinary team includes scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kansas State University, Oklahoma State University, New Mexico State University, Texas Tech University, West Texas A &M University, Texas A & M AgriLife and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service.

To learn more about the project, visit the USDA news site.

Study finds High Plains Aquifer [Ogallala] peak use by state, overall usage decline

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.
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.

Here’s the release from Kansas State University (Greg Tammen):

A new Kansas State University study finds that the over-tapping of the High Plains Aquifer’s groundwater beyond the aquifer’s recharge rate peaked in 2006. Its use is projected to decrease by roughly 50 percent in the next 100 years.

David Steward, professor of civil engineering, and Andrew Allen, civil engineering doctoral student, Manhattan, published those findings in the recent Agricultural Water Management study “Peak groundwater depletion in the High Plains Aquifer, projects from 1930 to 2110.” It is the first paper to look at and quantify peak aquifer depletion.

Researchers looked at the historic and projected future groundwater use rates of the eight states comprising the High Plains Aquifer. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas — eight agriculturally important states. It provides 30 percent of the irrigated water for the nation’s agriculture and is pivotal in food production.

This latest study builds on the 2013 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study in which Steward and colleagues forecasted the future of the Ogallala Aquifer in Kansas. Researchers expanded their projections to include wells in Kansas that were both depleted and steady in their historic groundwater levels as well as the eight states that rely on the High Plains Aquifer. A total of 3,200 Kansas wells and 11,000 wells from the other seven states were studied to understand their water depletion processes.

Allen wrote the computer code necessary to analyze massive amounts of geographic information systems data about the more than 14,000 wells using the aquifer. A logistic equation was developed to apply more than 300,000 well measurements to create a historical record of its water level and also its projected water level through 2110.

“When we did the Kansas study, it really focused on those wells in Kansas that were depleting,” Steward said. “We came up with a set of projections that looked at how long the water would last and how the depletion process would play out over time. With this study, we wanted to learn how the depletion in various locations plays into a larger picture of the aquifer.”

Steward and Allen found that the High Plains Aquifer’s depletion followed a south to north progression, with its depletion peaking in 2006 for the entire High Plains Aquifer. Overall, researchers saw that some portions of the aquifer are depleting while others are not. Texas peaked in 1999, New Mexico in 2002, Kansas in 2010, Oklahoma in 2012 and Colorado is projected to peak in 2023. Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming are not projected to reach peaks before 2110.

“We are on a declining trend right now for water use in irrigated agriculture,” Steward said. “As we project what happens in the future following the existing water use patterns, the amount of depletion and the amount of water that comes out of the aquifer will decrease by about half over the next 100 years.”

Additionally, researchers saw that the water depletion rates for each state in the High Plains Aquifer follow a similar bell-shaped curve pattern as the one for oil depletion in the U.S. modeled by the Hubbert peak theory.

Pump photo via Kansas State University
Pump photo via Kansas State University

While water is a finite resource, Steward said the intent behind the study is not raise alarm, but rather encourage proactivity to manage and preserve this resource.

“This study helps add to the dialogue of how is it that we manage water and the effects of the choices that we make today,” Steward said. “It has the same kind of message of our previous paper, which is that our future is not set; it’s not cast. The projections we show are projections based on the data we have available that show the trends based on how we used water. People have the opportunities to make choices about the way that things are done, and the findings from this study help add to the dialogue.”

The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded the study. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Kansas Geological Survey contributed decades of information about the High Plains Aquifer and the Ogallala Aquifer for analysis.