Water for tomorrow — Colorado State University #OgallalaAquifer

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 Colorado State University (Anne Manning):

Stretching 174,000 square miles across the High Plains, bringing life to fields of corn, cotton and wheat, lies the vast geologic resource known as the Ogallala Aquifer.

The largest freshwater aquifer in the world, the Ogallala has been an entire generation’s primary source for agricultural and public groundwater in eastern Colorado and six Great Plains states. Ninety percent of its pumped water is used for irrigation, making a fifth of the annual U.S. agricultural harvest possible, and helping support 30% of livestock produced in the nation.

Over the past eight decades, intensive reliance on this precious natural resource to support irrigated agriculture has led to crisis levels of water scarcity and water quality declines in many parts, threatening the very future of U.S. agriculture and the livelihoods of thousands of crop producers. Farmers, ranchers, scientists, community organizations and policymakers must work together to guide and implement strategies that will extend the life of the aquifer.

Since 2016, a Colorado State University-led consortium of eight western universities and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service have worked tirelessly to address these very challenges. The team of close to 100 experts, students and partners was formed through a $10 million grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Water for Agriculture Challenge program, under the leadership of two CSU faculty members: Meagan Schipanski, associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, and Reagan Waskom, professor in the same department and director of the Colorado Water Center.

The Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project includes CSU, 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 Extension, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service. Through the past several years, the project has integrated research, extension and thoughtful evaluation of social policies and economic strategies to make science-based recommendations for extending the life of the Ogallala Aquifer for generations to come and preparing for transitions away from irrigation when and where the aquifer depletes.

Most importantly, the USDA-funded work was intended to foster engagement with the people most affected by the declining water supply – the farmers and producers who rely on it and who, above all others, are dedicated to saving it.

“Over these past four years, we have focused not just on the science, but on the impact of that science, and on the network our project has helped foster,” said Schipanski, who recently led the procurement of a no-cost, fifth-year extension of the grant to continue the work into 2021. “We’ve become a trusted actor in this multi-state space, to lead these conversations.”

Expanding knowledge

Supported by the USDA grant, the team has developed a large body of research on critical topics related to the Ogallala Aquifer. These include optimizing water use through advanced cropping and irrigation management in both dryland and irrigated production systems; investigating socioeconomic factors that influence water use and decision-making; assessing potential impacts of policy and farm-level practices on regional outcomes; and developing data-based support tools and technologies that are both effective and user-friendly.

As an example of new scientific insight that could inform management practices, a recent paper co-authored by researchers from Stanford University, CSU, Kansas State University, West Texas A&M University and others, outlines the scale of threatened areas in the aquifer projected through 2100. While studies often assume that irrigated farming will transition to dryland farming once portions of the aquifer dry up, the researchers found that 13% of the land projected for irrigation losses is not suitable for such a transition and will likely go to pasture or other uses.

Others on the team have uncovered critical connections between soil health and water conservation in the Ogallala region, with a focus on soil organic matter accrual and the state of the soil microbiome. The expected transition to more dryland production will even further increase crops’ reliance on soil health, the researchers say.

Still, others have provided technical insights into deficit irrigation management of corn crops from across the Ogallala Aquifer region. Deficit irrigation is a watering strategy in which less water than a crop might fully use is applied, and water volume is timed to match the crop’s peak needs.

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.

Economic tradeoffs, incentives

A large focus area for the team has centered on the economic, social and behavioral ramifications of different management strategies and policies for the region. Particularly important has been a deep assessment of the attitudes and motivations of the farmers in the region, and how those might differ across ages and generations.

Jordan Suter, CSU associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, has been among those working in the area of understanding the decision-making of agricultural producers. His work — in collaboration with others in his department as well as researchers in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering — has undertaken the complex endeavor of combining spatial, hydrologic and economic models to support new insights into the delicate tradeoffs of different water policies.

Recently, Suter co-authored research on longstanding water conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, a federally funded collaboration with state and local water districts that incentivizes agricultural producers to retire groundwater wells in the interest of preserving the aquifer. In their recent analysis, Suter and colleagues found that the program, which pays farmers to take their wells offline, attracts participation primarily from wells that irrigate lower-quality land, in areas of the aquifer where less water is available. In other words, the program might not be as effective as hoped and could benefit from some restructuring of the incentives offered.

Among the most prominent themes of Suter and colleagues’ work is the need to balance short- and long-run outcomes of different management strategies. “I think most people are prepared to make sacrifices to provide for the long run, but how much and what is the best course of action is ultimately in their hands to decide,” he said. “Hopefully we can help provide empirical evidence to allow for informed decisions.”

Taking action now

Equally as important to answering research questions has been the strengthening of extension activities and programs to help water users take action now, whether that means changing how they approach irrigation or vetting technologies to help them manage water more sustainably.

An example of such work has been the growth and success of the Master Irrigator Program, which originated in the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District in Texas in 2016, was recently adapted and launched earlier this year in Colorado, and is now moving into Oklahoma.

The expansion of Master Irrigator programs was catalyzed by the Ogallala project’s help in coordinating an eight-state Ogallala Summit in 2018 with the Kansas Water Office that identified actionable, replicable activities for the benefit of the region. Colorado’s Master Irrigator program is a four-day, intensive educational course available for Republican River Basin irrigators and farm managers, offering training in advanced conservation- and efficiency-orientated irrigation practices.

Participants in the inaugural Colorado Master Irrigator Program, which took place in February and March, manage more than 20,000 acres within all eight Republican River Basin counties in northeastern Colorado.

Attendees at the first Ogallala Aquifer Summit, April 9 and 10, 2018, Garden City, Kansas, were broken into diversified focus groups by the organizers to better hash out issues that affect all eight states that sit above the aquifer. (Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.)

With support from the Ogallala team, the locally run Colorado Master Irrigator program has secured funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to continue for at least another two years, said Amy Kremen, the Ogallala grant program’s project manager. In addition to supporting development and delivery of the program, the funding makes possible participation stipends of up to $2,000 to course graduates who agree to share how they’ve used the information they’ve learned.

Community engagement and the satisfaction of participants in year one of the Colorado Master Irrigator program was very robust, Kremen said. “By laying out a smorgasbord of technologies and strategies for water management and providing a forum for practical discussion on potential benefits as well as costs and limitations, it puts farmers in the driver’s seat,” she said.

In keeping with the theme of advancing technologies, the Ogallala project has also supported the growth of a Nebraska-based program called TAPS, or Testing Ag Performance Solutions. In 2017, Ogallala team collaborators based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln launched a series of farm-management competitions that provide a no-risk environment for farmers to try out agricultural technologies to produce a crop. As a result of the team’s connections, a new TAPS program was launched in 2019 in cooperation with Oklahoma State University in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Over the next three years, a grant from the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service will support further development of TAPS programs and explore possibilities for expansion in Colorado and Kansas.

“The TAPS program has been this incredible, impactful integration of industry, research and extension,” Schipanski said.

Ogallala Aquifer Summit

This and other successes from the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project are set to be shared with over 200 partners at the Ogallala Aquifer Summit, to take place in early 2021 in Amarillo, Texas. The biennial event, postponed from earlier this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is themed “Tackling Tough Questions.”

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

Water right: College’s program creates opportunity to preserve aquifer — The High Plains Journal

Photo credit: Northwest Kansas Technical College

From The High Plains Journal (Dave Bergmeier):

Open-minded, common sense individuals matched with hands-on technology are making a difference in the drive to conserve water in the Ogallala Aquifer.

Those individuals are thriving at Northwest Kansas Technical College, Goodland, Kansas, an institution that has a history of regularly raising bumper crops of entrepreneurs. The latest addition is irrigation management. In 2016, NWKTC’s Precision Ag program launched its Water Technology Farms project to promote the adoption of various irrigation management technologies to help producers in that region, said Weston McCary, director of Precision Agriculture and UAS Technologies at the college.

Students welcome the opportunity to learn how to use new techniques to preserve groundwater, McCary said, adding that is essential for agriculture and agricultural-related businesses in the High Plains…

Stevens GroPoint Profiling Probe via Agri Tech Tomorrow.

“The biggest thing to me is the moisture probes,” [John Gower] said. “There’s data to show that if you do have a moisture probe, if used to its full potential and you trust it, you will save money on pumping costs and cut down on the water usage,” said Gower, whose major is in precision agriculture with an associate’s degree in applied science. “They can now grow as much corn with less water usage. It is hard to argue against success.”

Variable rate irrigation scripts also help producers to address topography and to keep water from running down ditches, he said.

Matching those VRI scripts with a soil probe in a well-maintained pivot system can help producers to be more efficient and preserve precious groundwater, he said. Gower is also working with McClain on a precision planter and the soon-to-be graduate wants to be able to follow a passion of improving planting equipment for producers and also farming.

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.”

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.

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

A quick look at Ogallala Aquifer water rights governance

Ogallala aquifer boundaries

From High Plains Public Radio (Susan Stover):

Texas manages groundwater with the Rule of Capture. The groundwater belongs to the landowner without a defined limit. It’s sometimes known as the Law of the Biggest Pump.

Colorado and Kansas water law is based on prior appropriation, known as First in Time, First in Right. A water right owner can pump their permitted amount if it doesn’t impair a more senior right – a water right that was established earlier in time. When there isn’t enough water to meet all needs, the owners of senior water rights have priority. The priority system works well for streams. When stream flow is low, it is generally clear which upstream, junior users must be cut off to protect the more senior water rights.

For groundwater, it is more complex to identify which water wells are impairing a more senior water well. Groundwater often provides a baseflow to streams; when heavy groundwater pumping lowers the water table so there is no longer a connection to the stream and stream flow declines, is that impairment?

Colorado state law dealt with such concerns by defining “designated groundwater basins,” those in which groundwater contributes little to stream flow. The Ogallala aquifer lies in designated groundwater basins. This allows more groundwater to be pumped, which lowers the water table, but with less risk of impairing surface water rights.

In Kansas, action is taken when a junior water right well’s pumping directly impairs a senior water right well, whether it uses groundwater or surface water. However, no action is taken if problems are due to regional groundwater declines. Like Colorado, Kansas allows the decline of the Ogallala aquifer to get the economic benefit from the water.

Management of the Ogallala aquifer is a balance between protecting existing water right holders and conserving water for the future. Attitudes change over time on what is a proper balance. Much water law encouraged development of the aquifer and protects current users. Is that balance shifting more toward conserving and extending this resource further into the future?

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.

@ColoradoStateU: Groundwater pumping drying up Great Plains streams, driving fish extinctions

A Google Earth image of the crop circles in the lower Arikaree River watershed, highlighting the river reaches that were dry (red), disconnected pools (yellow), and flowing (blue) at the lowest water in late summer 2007. Only one segment of 9 miles of flowing river remained as habitat for fish. The river flows from left to right. Image created by Jeff Falke, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Here’s the release from Colorado State University:

Farmers in the Great Plains of Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas and the panhandle of Texas produce about one-sixth of the world’s grain, and water for these crops comes from the High Plains Aquifer — often known as the Ogallala Aquifer — the single greatest source of groundwater in North America. A team of researchers, including Colorado State University Professor Kurt Fausch and Jeff Falke, a CSU alumnus and an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, have discovered that more than half a century of groundwater pumping from the aquifer has led to long segments of rivers drying up and the collapse of large-stream fishes.

If pumping practices are not modified, scientists warn that these habitats will continue to shrink, and the fish populations along with them.

The research team combined modeling from the past and future to assess changes in Great Plains streams and their fish populations associated with groundwater pumping from the High Plains Aquifer. The findings have implications for watersheds around the world, because irrigation accounts for 90 percent of human water use globally, and local and regional aquifers are drying up.

A ‘train wreck’

The Arikaree River in 2000 in early summer, when water is near its maximum extent. Photo: Kurt Fausch

Fausch said the study results are sobering. Based on earlier observations and modeling by Falke and a team of graduate students and faculty at CSU, the Arikaree River in eastern Colorado, which is fed by the aquifer and used to flow about 70 miles, will dry up to about one-half mile by 2045.

“You have this train wreck where we’re drying up streams to feed a growing human population of more than 7 billion people,” Fausch said.

Fausch described the situation as a “wicked problem,” one with no good solution. “More water is pumped out every year than trickles back down into the aquifer from rain and snow,” he said. “We are basically drying out the Great Plains.”

Pumping has dried up streams, small rivers

Since the 1950s, pumping has extracted nearly as much water as what exists in Lake Erie — about 100 trillion gallons — and almost none of it trickles back into the aquifer.

“This pumping has dried up long segments of many streams and small rivers in the region,” Fausch said. From 1950 to 2010, a total of 350 miles of stream dried up in the large area the team studied in eastern Colorado, southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas. “Our models project that another 180 miles of stream will dry up by 2060,” Fausch said.

An orangethroat darter, one of the nine remaining native fish species in the Arikaree River. Photo: Jeremy Monroe, Freshwaters Illustrated.

The loss of fish in the area is also a concern. “What we’re losing are the fishes that require habitat found only in the rivers and large streams of the region, and replacing them with those that can survive in the small streams that are left,” Fausch said. “We are losing whole populations of species from rivers in that region because there’s no habitat for them.”

As an example, seven of the 16 native fish species that were once found in the Arikaree River have disappeared since the first surveys were done in the 1940s. These fish include small minnows, suckers and catfish, species that the CSU scientist said are not among those that are currently federally endangered or threatened, so there’s little regulatory authority to preserve the habitats.

“We’re losing fish that people really don’t know about,” said Fausch. “They are cool and very beautiful, but not charismatic.”

Losing a river means losing more than fishes

Effects from the groundwater pumping will extend beyond the fishes and streams, too. Farmers in that area hope to conserve enough water so that future generations can continue to work on the land. And the everyday places that benefit from water could also disappear.

“If they lose the river, they’ll not only lose fishes, but they’ll also lose water for their cattle, and cottonwoods that provide shade,” Fausch explained. “They also lose the grass that grows in the riparian zone, which is critical forage for cattle in summer. Some of that’s your livelihood, but it’s also the place you go for picnics, and to hunt deer and turkeys. If you lose the river, you lose a major feature of what that landscape is.”

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

Fausch said that there are some signs of progress, despite the grim findings. Local officials have put meters on wells to ensure that farmers pump only the amount of water allowed under their permits. And farmers are always experimenting with new technology that will allow them to optimize the amount of water they use to achieve the highest crop yields, since it takes electricity to pump the water from deep underground and this is an important cost to them. This doesn’t mean that the groundwater levels that feed streams are not declining, but instead are declining at a slower rate than in the past, he said.

Growing dryland crops an option

One additional option, though it might be a hard sell, is for farmers to grow dryland crops, meaning that they rely only on rainfall each year, instead of pumping water. The problem is the crop yields then vary widely from year to year, depending on the rain.

“Every farmer understands that eventually they will no longer be able to afford to pump as much water,” said Fausch. “Farmers are amazing economists. New options such as economical drip irrigation are being discussed, and farmers will likely switch to these options when they become available.”

Fausch, who has studied rivers throughout his entire career, grows wistful when talking about the research. “When we lose these rivers, we will lose them for our lifetime, our children’s lifetime, and our grandchildren’s lifetime,” he said.

Even if all pumping were stopped tomorrow, the aquifer would refill very slowly, over the next 100 years or more, said Fausch. As the groundwater table rose, rivers would start to flow again.

“Groundwater declines are linked to changes in Great Plains stream fish assemblages” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Falke received his doctorate in fisheries biology from CSU in 2009. The research team includes scientists from Kansas State University, Tennessee Technological University, U.S. Geological Survey, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Westar Energy and The Nature Conservancy.

Ogallala Aquifer — different water law by state

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 High Plains Public Radio (Susan Stover):

Texas manages groundwater with the Rule of Capture. The groundwater belongs to the landowner without a defined limit. It’s sometimes known as the Law of the Biggest Pump.

Colorado and Kansas water law is based on prior appropriation, known as First in Time, First in Right. A water right owner can pump their permitted amount if it doesn’t impair a more senior right – a water right that was established earlier in time. When there isn’t enough water to meet all needs, the owners of senior water rights have priority. The priority system works well for streams. When stream flow is low, it is generally clear which upstream, junior users must be cut off to protect the more senior water rights.

For groundwater, it is more complex to identify which water wells are impairing a more senior water well. Groundwater often provides a baseflow to streams; when heavy groundwater pumping lowers the water table so there is no longer a connection to the stream and stream flow declines, is that impairment?

Colorado state law dealt with such concerns by defining “designated groundwater basins,” those in which groundwater contributes little to stream flow. The Ogallala aquifer lies in designated groundwater basins. This allows more groundwater to be pumped, which lowers the water table, but with less risk of impairing surface water rights.

In Kansas, action is taken when a junior water right well’s pumping directly impairs a senior water right well, whether it uses groundwater or surface water. However, no action is taken if problems are due to regional groundwater declines. Like Colorado, Kansas allows the decline of the Ogallala aquifer to get the economic benefit from the water.

Management of the Ogallala aquifer is a balance between protecting existing water right holders and conserving water for the future. Attitudes change over time on what is a proper balance. Much water law encouraged development of the aquifer and protects current users. Is that balance shifting more toward conserving and extending this resource further into the future?

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

Ogallalahighplainsaquifercsu

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

Ogallalahighplainsaquifercsu

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.

USDA expands investment in water conservation and improvement in [Ogallala] aquifer

Here’s the release from the US Department of Agriculture (Justin Fritscher):

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced USDA will invest about $8 million in the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative in Fiscal Year 2016 to help farmers and ranchers conserve billions of gallons of water annually while strengthening agricultural operations. The eight-state Ogallala Aquifer has suffered in recent years from increased periods of drought and declining water resources.

“USDA’s Ogallala Aquifer Initiative helps landowners build resilience in their farms and ranches and better manage water use in this thirsty region,” said Vilsack. “Since 2011, USDA has invested $74 million in helping more than 1,600 agricultural producers conserve water on 341,000 acres through this initiative.”

The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest aquifer in the U.S. and includes nearly all of Nebraska and large sections of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. It is the primary water source for the High Plains region. Covering nearly 174,000 square miles, it supports the production of nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle produced in the U.S. and supplies 30 percent of all water used for irrigation in the U.S.

Water levels in the region are dropping at an unsustainable rate, making targeted conservation even more important. From 2011 to 2013, the aquifer’s overall water level dropped by 36 million acre-feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) supports targeted, local efforts to conserve the quality and quantity of water in nine targeted focus areas through the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative (OAI), adding two new focus areas for fiscal year 2016, while continuing support for seven ongoing projects. These projects include building soil health by using cover crops and no-till, which allow the soil to hold water longer and buffer roots from higher temperatures; improving the efficiency of irrigation systems; and implementing prescribed grazing to relieve pressure on stressed vegetation.

The new focus areas include:

Middle Republican Natural Resource District in Nebraska: The project addresses groundwater quantity and quality concerns. The focus will be in areas where groundwater pumping contributes to high levels of stream flow depletion. Priority will be given to areas where groundwater pumping contributes to more than 48 percent of the overall aquifer depletion rate. The project will enable participants to voluntarily implement practices to conserve irrigation water and improve groundwater quality.

Oklahoma Ogallala Aquifer Initiative: This project will help landowners implement conservation practices that decrease water use. It includes an educational component that will educate citizens about water conservation and conservation systems. These systems include converting from irrigated to dryland farming and conservation practices that improve irrigation water management; crop residue and tillage management; nutrient and pesticide management; grazing systems; and playa wetland restorations. The targeted area includes places where great amounts of water are consumed. Focal areas will be heavily-populated municipalities in the aquifer region.

See the full list of OAI areas.

NRCS analysis of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) conservation projects in the region, including those implemented through OAI, estimated reduced water withdrawals of at least 1.5 million acre-feet, or 489 billion gallons of water, from 2009 through 2013 and an energy savings equivalent of almost 33 million gallons of diesel fuel due to reduced irrigation.

With the growing demand for water and drought conditions plaguing the West, NRCS is working with farmers and ranchers to help them implement proven conservation solutions on targeted landscapes to improve the quality of water and soil, increase water supplies, increase the infiltration of water into the ground, and make lands more resilient to drought.

This investment in the Ogallala region expands on USDA’s substantial efforts to help producers address water scarcity and water quality issues on agricultural lands. Between 2012 and 2014, across the United States, NRCS invested more than $1.5 billion in financial and technical assistance to help producers implement conservation practices that improve water use efficiency and build long-term health of working crop, pasture, and range lands. These practices include building soil health by using cover crops and no-till, which allow soil to hold water longer and buffer roots from higher temperatures; improving the efficiency of irrigation systems; and implementing prescribed grazing to relieve pressure on stressed vegetation.

Kansas’ invisible water crisis — The Wichita Eagle

ogallalahighplainsdepletions2011thru2013viausgs

From The Wichita Eagle (Lindsay Wise):

…But irrigation soon could end on [Brant] Peterson’s southwest Kansas farm. The wells under his land in Stanton County are fast running dry as farmers and ranchers across the Great Plains pump the Ogallala faster than it can be replenished naturally.

Three of his wells are already dry.

Within five years, Peterson estimates, he likely won’t be able to irrigate at all.

Wet and dry: A country divided

While the east half of the country generally receives at least 25 inches of rain a year, much of the west is dryer.

This means much of our country’s corn and hogs are farmed west of the 100th meridian. Meanwhile, in the Great Plains, milo, or grain sorghum, has become a popular crop due to its reduced need for water, and cattle farming has long been popular out west…

Western Kansas’ only significant water source is the Ogallala…

The vast freshwater reservoir beneath the prairie formed 5 million to 10 million years ago as streams draining from the Rocky Mountains deposited water in the clay, sand and gravel beneath the Great Plains.

The water lay there undisturbed for epochs until enterprising homesteaders who settled the West discovered the liquid bonanza that would make their arid land bloom.

Now, in a geological blink of an eye, the Ogallala, which made the Great Plains the nation’s breadbasket, is in peril…

The disappearing water supply poses a twofold danger. It could end a way of life in a region where the land and its bounty have been purchased by the toil and sweat of generations of farmers.

It also threatens a harvest worth $21 billion a year to Kansas alone and portends a fast-approaching, and largely unstoppable, water crisis across the parched American West.

With water levels already too low to pump in some places, western Kansas farmers have been forced to acknowledge that the end is near. That harsh reality is testing the patience and imagination of those who rely on the land for their livelihoods.

As they look for survival, farmers are using cutting-edge technologies to make the most efficient use of the water they have left. They’re contemplating something almost unimaginable just a generation ago: voluntary pacts with their neighbors to reduce irrigation.

And many are investing their long-term hopes in an astronomically expensive water transportation project that isn’t likely ever to be built.

The Arkansas River, which once flowed out of Colorado into western Kansas, is nothing but a dry ditch now, its riverbed reduced to a rugged obstacle course for all-terrain vehicles.

And average rainfall here is just 14 to 16 inches a year, nowhere near enough to replace the water that farmers draw from the Ogallala.

Kansas enjoyed a rainier-than-normal spring this year, easing several years of drought conditions throughout the state. But the relief is temporary.

The storms that soaked the state in recent months won’t alter the Ogallala’s fate, experts say…

Once emptied, it would take 6,000 years to refill the Ogallala naturally…

The Ogallala Aquifer supplies water for 20 percent of the corn, wheat, sorghum and cattle produced in the U.S.

It sprawls 174,000 square miles across eight states, from South Dakota to Texas, and can hold more than enough water to fill Lake Huron and part of Lake Ontario.

But for every square mile of aquifer, there’s a well. About 170,000 of them. Ninety percent of the water pumped out is used to irrigate crops…

Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to address the rapid decline of the aquifer. Water rights holders in much of western Kansas had to install flow meters in all their wells starting in the mid-1990s. Soon all wells in Kansas will have to be metered. And the state government has stopped issuing new permits to pump water from the Ogallala in areas of western Kansas where water levels have dropped the most.

Now, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has pledged to make water policy a central pillar of his administration. The final draft of his 50-year “water vision” for the state, released in January, outlines an incentive and education-based approach focused on encouraging voluntary, coordinated conservation efforts by the farmers who have the most to lose by the aquifer’s decline.

So far, however, farmers have agreed to limit water use in just part of two northwestern counties. A group of farmers in Sheridan and Thomas counties established a Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, in 2012 to cut water use by 20 percent over five years.

It seems to be working: In the first year, participants in the LEMA used about 2.5 inches less water for irrigation than their neighbors and produced just two bushels less per acre, on average.

A proposal to create another LEMA in west-central Kansas was voted down last year by water rights holders.

“The problem is everybody wants to be democratic, and you have people for and you have some people against,” said Bill Golden, an agricultural economist at Kansas State.

It isn’t easy to convince individuals to put their profits at risk to preserve a common resource, especially when some farmers have more water left than others, Golden said.

“But I think that we will probably see more LEMAs in the coming years,” he said. “That is the most acceptable answer. I mean, we’re going to run out of water. Nobody’s talking about saving the aquifer and not using the water. The question is, can we extend the life of the aquifer and make it a soft landing?”

For now, that leaves individual farmers making their own decisions about how best to manage water on their land.

Ten miles east of Peterson’s farm, in Grant County, Kan., Clay Scott parked his Dodge pickup on a country road and reached for his iPad.

A few hundred feet away, a solar panel planted in a field of wheat powered a probe that measures soil moisture at different depths.

Right now the probe told Scott’s iPad that he could hold off on watering the field. His sprinklers lay idle.

“People think that we waste our water out here,” Scott said, “and we just kind of grin because we work so hard to use that water.”

In addition to the soil moisture probes linked to his iPad, Scott consults satellites and radar data to track every shift in the weather and drop of rain that falls in his fields so he can minimize irrigation. He uses low-till techniques to preserve the soil and experiments with genetically engineered drought-resistant corn. He installed more efficient nozzles on his center-pivot sprinklers.

And he’s trying out a new device called a “dragon line,” which drags perforated hoses behind a center pivot to deposit water directly on the ground, reducing pooling and evaporation.

Scott’s version of high-tech farming would be unrecognizable to his great-grandfather, who homesteaded in nearby Stanton County around the turn of the century.

Still, despite all his efforts, Scott knows there will come a day – sooner rather than later if nothing is done – when irrigation is no longer viable in this part of Kansas.

The effects of the depleted aquifer already can be felt on Scott’s farm, where he’s had to reduce irrigation by 25 percent.

Some of his two dozen wells are pumping just 150 gallons per minute now, down from thousands of gallons per minute when they were first drilled. And as the water table drops, the energy costs of pumping from deeper underground have become higher than the cash rents Scott pays on the fields he leases.

“We’ve gone through periods where we re-drilled and tapped all but the very lowest water,” Scott said. “There are places we don’t pump the wells anymore.”

As an elected board member for the local Groundwater Management District, Scott hopes that he’ll be able to shape conservation policies that will enable his children to continue farming after him. He sees the situation in California, where the state has forced farmers to cut water use, as a cautionary tale. If farmers in Kansas don’t find ways to conserve enough water on their own, the state could enforce water rationing.

“I’ve got three boys, and a couple of them have already talked very seriously about coming back to the farm, and I’d like them to have the opportunity and ability that I’ve had to grow crops and livestock, even in a drought,” he said.

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue
Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

Scott’s long-term hopes rest in the construction of an $18 billion aqueduct that would import high flows off the Missouri River to water crops grown in western Kansas.

As conceived by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the concrete ditch would stretch 360 miles from east to west across Kansas with 16 lift stations and massive reservoirs on either end. The proposal was met with opposition – and not a little ridicule – by the legislature in Topeka, as state lawmakers struggled to close a $400 million budget hole.

“We’re not working on it at this point,” Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, said in an interview.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon dismissed the aqueduct as a “harebrained” scheme that would divert river water needed for barge traffic and municipal use.

But in western Kansas, it doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea.

“When they’re flooding in the Missouri River and cities are sandbagging, it sure seems to us like we have an answer to their problems,” Scott said. “Nobody wants to build a house and see it flooded; nobody wants to plant a field and watch it wither.”

Fervent support for the project speaks to the urgency felt by Scott, Peterson and other farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods and communities depend on irrigation. They’re hoping to convince the federal government to kick in funds for the aqueduct. And they’re looking into the possibility of building it through a public-private partnership, like a toll road. Farming cooperatives in California and Colorado have expressed interest in the project, they say, and want to explore extending it farther west.

A federal engineering bailout for western Kansas isn’t very likely, however.

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in an interview that such a costly project would be a nonstarter under Congress’ current budget caps.

“In all honestly, it’s a front-burner issue for folks in southwest Kansas, but to build that kind of aqueduct would be billions of dollars, and I just don’t think that’s feasible at this point,” Roberts said.

Barring the construction of an aqueduct, rural communities that depend on the Ogallala face a bleak future.

The state would have to cut its irrigated acres in half today to get anywhere close to sustainability, said Golden, the agricultural economist from Kansas State.

But it isn’t as simple as turning off the sprinklers.

“People survived out here on dryland farming. I can do it,” Peterson said, using the term “dryland” to refer to growing crops without irrigation. “Here’s the cost: My community is going to wither away.”

An irrigated field in southwest Kansas produces more than eight times more corn per acre on average than a field that isn’t irrigated, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Land values would drop. The loss of equity and tax base would mean fewer farmers and bigger farms, consolidated school districts, and impoverished towns with declining populations.

Like any economy dependent on mining a finite resource, this one is headed for a bust, and the farmers know it.

“We can’t wait another 30 years to get our policy right,” Scott said. “The drought in California is showing what living in denial can do.”

From Science Daily:

Keith Gido, professor in the Division of Biology; Josh Perkin, 2012 Kansas State University doctoral graduate; and several co-authors have published “Fragmentation and dewatering transform Great Plains stream fish communities” in the journal Ecological Monographs.

The article documents a reduction in water flow in Great Plains streams and rivers because of drought, damming and groundwater withdrawals. This is causing a decrease in aquatic diversity in Kansas from stream fragmentation — or stretches of disconnected streams.

“Fish are an indication of the health of the environment,” Gido said. “A while back there was a sewage leak in the Arkansas River and it was the dead fish that helped identify the problem. Children play and swim in that water, so it’s important that we have a good understanding of water quality.”

Several species of fish — including the peppered chub and the plains minnow — were found to be severely declining in the Great Plains during the ecologists’ field research, which compared historic records to 110 sampling sites in Kansas between 2011-2013. Both fish species swim downstream during droughts and return during normal water flow, but the construction of dams, or stream fragmentation, prevents fish from returning upstream.

“The Great Plains region is a harsh environment and drought has always been a problem. Historically, fish were able to recover from drought by moving,” Gido said. “They could swim downstream and when the drought was over, they could swim back. Now, there are dams on the rivers and the fish are not able to recover.”

Streams in the Great Plains region have more than 19,000 human-made barriers. Gido estimates that on average, stretches of streams in the Great Plains are about six miles long. In surveying Kansas’ streams and rivers, the researchers discovered numerous small dams that do not allow enough habitat for the fish to complete their reproductive cycles. Moreover, the fish are unable to migrate in search of suitable habitat.

“Groundwater extraction exasperates the drought, and the damming of the rivers inhibits the fish from being able to recover from those conditions,” Gido said. “This is unfortunate, but there are some things we can do to help.”

Gido suggested a renewed focus to conserve water, reduce dams and make fish passageways like the one on the Arkansas River under Lincoln Street in Wichita. During the planning for the reconstruction of the Lincoln Street Bridge and the dam over the river, the city worked with wildlife agencies to build a passage that would allow fish as well as canoes and kayaks to navigate through the structure.

Similar structures could be constructed on the Kansas River to help fish migrate.

“The plains minnow is still found in the Missouri River and could recolonize the Kansas River — where they used to be the most abundance species — if there was a fish passage through some of the dams.”

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here.

Circle of Blue: Ogallala Aquifer water level dropped again in 2015 in the Texas Panhandle

Kansas to host Central Plains Irrigation Conference February 17-18 — Rural Radio

From the Kansas State Research and Extension via KTIC:

The 2015 Central Plains Irrigation Conference and Exposition will take place Feb. 17-18 at the City Limits Convention Center, Colby, Kansas. The popular annual event focused solely on irrigation-related topics is hosted in Kansas every third year. Sponsors include Kansas State University, Colorado State University, the University of Nebraska and the Central Plains Irrigation Association.

The conference portion of the event will include many technical irrigation sessions presented by academic researchers from the areas of agronomy and irrigation engineering, for example, as well as representatives from governmental agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

Session topics include the crop water budget, optimizing crop water productivity in a variable climate, sensor technologies for irrigation management, advancements in subsurface drip irrigation and center pivot irrigation, updates on groundwater issues and crop options for deficit irrigation.

“The overall theme for this event from a crop water standpoint, particularly for western Kansas, is management with limited water supply,” said Danny Rogers, K-State Research and Extension professor and irrigation engineer. “But, the management issues we talk about with irrigation have application whether you have full water or limited water capabilities. There will be something for everyone.”

Bob Gillen, head of tri-center operations for K-State Research and Extension’s Western Kansas Agricultural Research Centers, will present the first day general session on lessons from 100 years of agricultural research in northwest Kansas. Ajay Sharda, assistant professor in K-State’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, will lead a general session discussion about the potential of technology and precision agriculture on the second day of the event.

The conference includes a menu-driven program, Rogers said, so participants can choose what to attend during the two days. The exposition side of the event will allow for industry representatives and irrigators to interact.

“Producers can come in and see, touch and talk about the new sprinkler options, soil sensors, plant health sensors, potentials for aerial sensors and other items out there,” Rogers said. “It’s a chance to have one-on-one conversations with industry folks, specialists and fellow irrigators.”

For a full list of sessions and presenters and the registration form, visit http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/sdi/REvents/CPIAprog.html. Register early by Jan. 30 at a discounted rate of $85 per person. After Jan. 30, registration is $100 per person. The fee covers access to technical and general sessions, the exposition and on-site meals. For more information, contact Donna Lamm at 785-462-7574 or donnalamm@yahoo.com.

More Ogallala Aquifer coverage here. More Republican River Basin coverage here. More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.

Is An Aqueduct A Practical Answer To Western Kansas’ Water Crisis? — Heartland Health Monitor

From KCUR.org (Bryan Thompson):

Western Kansas is heavily dependent on the Ogallala Aquifer. But since 1950, that ancient supply of underground water has been rapidly depleted by irrigation. That irrigation produces corn, which is fed to livestock to support the beef and, more recently, dairy industries, which are the foundation of the western Kansas economy. But water levels have dropped so low in parts of more than 30 counties that irrigation pumps can no longer be used there. That’s why rivers in western Kansas are little more than dry stream beds.

Mark Rude is tracking the depletion of the aquifer for a groundwater management district in the heart of the affected area.

“We’re only 9 percent sustainable with that 2 million acre-feet that we use in southwest Kansas,” Rude says. “And 9 percent sustainable is a very formidable number, because you can’t conserve your way out of that.”

In other words, 91 percent of the water currently being pumped would have to be shut off just to keep the aquifer from declining any more. But if the water doesn’t come from the aquifer, where could it come from? The 2011 flooding on the Missouri River gave Rude and others an idea about how to answer that question. While devastating to those along the river, the flood looked like an opportunity.

“Folks who realize the deep value of water in western Kansas looked at that and go, ‘Wow, if we only had a couple days of that flow we could fill the aquifer, and we’d all be happy,’” Rude says.

Rude looked into that idea, and rediscovered the 1982 study proposing a system to capture excess water from the Missouri River and store it in a huge, new lake near White Cloud in the northeastern corner of the state. It would then be pumped uphill through an aqueduct to western Kansas. There it would be stored in another new lake — by far the largest in the state — for distribution.

The cost was estimated at $1,000 per acre-foot of water delivered. With that price tag, the concept was dead on arrival. But recently, the Kansas Water Office told the committee charged with updating the old study that the cost is now closer to $500 per acre-foot. The savings are due to lower interest rates. Cost is a concern for committee member Judy Wegener-Stevens, but it’s not the only reason she’s opposed to the project.

“I don’t feel an aqueduct should be built,” Wegener-Stevens says. “I feel that people in western Kansas have been pumping water unconditionally, without any rules, for 40 years, and they have not used their resource very well.”

Wegener-Stevens, who lives in White Cloud, said the nearby Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska would fight a proposed aqueduct. They have rights to water in the Missouri River and are working to quantify those rights. There might also be objections from other states, even though the idea is to take only “excess” water. Throw in anticipated battles over property rights and environmental concerns, and some committee members say the aqueduct still doesn’t appear realistic.

But committee member Clay Scott isn’t willing to give up on the idea. Three generations of his family raise cattle and grow irrigated corn and wheat near Ulysses, in southwest Kansas. Scott points to an Arizona aqueduct called the Central Arizona Project as proof that a Kansas aqueduct is feasible. He says a reliable source of water is vital to the future of his family’s farm.

“I’ve got three boys that are looking to maybe come back to the farm, but, you know, it takes a lot of acres in western Kansas to support a family — especially coming through these last three years of drought,” Scott says. “It’s a challenge to tell your boys that there’s an opportunity. There’s a future for you here.”

Scott and other members of the advisory committee say the first priority should be some sort of compact with other states and Indian tribes to secure rights to Missouri River water. Then they can worry about all the other obstacles to the project. Earl Lewis, the assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, agrees with that approach.

“Moving forward and investing considerable time and funds into pursuing a project that doesn’t have the legal security of a water right or some kind of compact doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Lewis says.

Even if the Missouri River doesn’t pan out as a water source, Lewis says there may be other options. State law could be changed to make it easier to transfer surplus water to western Kansas from other parts of the state. And Kansas may be able to get some financial help from Colorado, in exchange for providing water to ease shortages on the Front Range. But it will be up to others to explore those options and others. The advisory committee’s charge was solely to update the aqueduct study and make recommendations. Those recommendations are due by the end of January.

More Ogallala Aquifer coverage here.

Mining the Ogallala — The Pueblo Chieftain

ogallalahighplainsdepletions2011thru2013viausgs

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Wells are depleting the High Plains Aquifer at an alarming rate, according to a study released last week by the U.S. Geological Survey.

“The measurements made from 2011 to 2013 represent a large decline,” said Virginia McGuire, USGS scientist and lead author of the study. “This amount of aquifer depletion over a two-year period is substantial and likely related to groundwater pumping.”

The aquifer, also known as the Ogallala Aquifer underlies 175,000 square miles in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.

Wells began tapping the aquifer heavily in the 1930s and 1940s, and the acreage irrigated expanded to 15.5 million acres in 2005 from 2.1 million acres in 1949.

The total water stored in the aquifer in 2011 was estimated at 2.92 billion acre-feet (951.5 trillion gallons). Pumping in two years depleted that by 36 million acre-feet (11.7 trillion gallons), causing an average drop in the aquifer of 2.1 feet. The overall rate of decline in the entire aquifer since pre-development is 267 million acre-feet, or 8 percent, resulting in a drop of 15,4 feet through 2013.

The change has been most significant in Texas, where levels dropped 44 feet in some places in the 2011-13 study period and 256 feet since pumping began. In some places, the well levels rose. With the highest rise since predevelopment recorded in Nebraska at 85 feet. Over time, Texas well levels have declined by 41 percent, and Kansas wells by 25 percent. Colorado dropped 14.3 percent over that same period, with more severe declines in the northern part of the state.

For the 2011-13 period, 7,460 wells were studied, 411 of those in Colorado. For the pre-development study, 3,349 wells were included, with 325 in Colorado.

“This multi-state, groundwater-level monitoring activity tracks water-level changes in all eight states through time and has provided data critical to evaluating different options for groundwater management,” said McGuire. “This level of coordinated groundwater-level monitoring is unique among major, multi-state regional aquifers in the country.”

Here’s the release from the United States Geological Survey (Virginia L. McGuire):

Abstract

The High Plains aquifer underlies 111.8 million acres (about 175,000 square miles) in parts of eight States—Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Water-level declines began in parts of the High Plains aquifer soon after the beginning of substantial irrigation with groundwater in the aquifer area (about 1950). This report presents water-level changes in the High Plains aquifer from predevelopment (generally before 1950) to 2013 and from 2011 to 2013. The report also presents change in water in storage in the High Plains aquifer from predevelopment to 2013 and from 2011 to 2013.

The methods to calculate area-weighted, average water-level changes; change in water in storage; and total water in storage for this report used geospatial data layers organized as rasters with a cell size of 500 meters by 500 meters, which is an area of about 62 acres. These methods were used to provide a raster dataset of water-level changes for other uses.

Water-level changes from predevelopment to 2013, by well, ranged from a rise of 85 feet to a decline of 256 feet. Water-level changes from 2011 to 2013, by well, ranged from a rise of 19 feet to a decline of 44 feet. The area-weighted, average water-level changes in the aquifer were an overall decline of 15.4 feet from predevelopment to 2013, and a decline of 2.1 feet from 2011 to 2013. Total water in storage in the aquifer in 2013 was about 2.92 billion acre-feet, which was a decline of about 266.7 million acre-feet since predevelopment and a decline of 36.0 million acre-feet from 2011 to 2013.

Click here to read the report.

More coverage of the 2012 drought and its affect on the Ogallala Aquifer from Stephanie Paige Ogburn writing for KUNC. Here’s an excerpt:

In Northeastern Colorado, farmers growing food like corn and potatoes depend for water on a giant, underground reservoir. Called the Ogallala, or High Plains aquifer, this water source spreads across eight high plains states like a giant, underground lake.

In times of drought, farmers who use the aquifer for water take more of it. A report from the U.S. Geological Survey, published December 16, shows the 2012 drought significantly diminished the Ogallala’s water.

“The bottom line was, there was with the drought, increased pumping and you have decline of the water levels,” said Virginia McGuire, the U.S. Geological Survey scientist who authored the report.

Over the last six decades, Colorado has exceeded the aquifer’s resupply by 18.8 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land one foot deep.

Between 2011 and 2013, the state used up 3 million acre-feet more than was recharged. Across most of the aquifer, other areas also used a whole lot of water during that period. Kansas and Texas, both hard hit by drought, caused the largest declines in Ogallala water levels.

McGuire, who has been tracking the aquifer’s water level for years, said she knew the drought would make an impact. She was a little surprised at how significant an effect it was, though.

“The story is drought was widespread and there were declines in most of the aquifer for the 2011 to 2013 time frame.”

More Ogallala Aquifer coverage here.

Significant portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate. Courtesy of MSU
Significant portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate. Courtesy of MSU

Ogallala aquifer drops by 36 million acre-feet from 2011-2013

Significant portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate. Courtesy of MSU
Significant portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate. Courtesy of MSU

From Net Nebraska (Grant Gerlock):

The aquifer lost enough water over a recent two-year period to cover the entire state of Iowa in a foot of water, according to a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey that studies water level changes from 2011-13.

The vast underground lake that supplies water to wells in some of the country’s most productive agricultural land – including parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas – lost 36 million acre-feet of water from 2011-13. The aquifer has lost about 8 percent of its stored water since 1950.

Prolonged drought is mostly to blame for the recent depletion, said USGS’ Virginia McGuire.

“If you were a farmer in this area you would have known about the 2012 drought and you would have known about increased pumping in that time-frame,” McGuire said.

In parts of western Kansas and northern Texas, the aquifer is no longer a reliable or sustainable source for irrigation, which has forced some farmers to change how they use their land.

“They’ve had to make some adjustments in farmers going to dry land farming or maybe changing crop types,” McGuire said. “They’ve definitely had to adjust to the declining water levels.”

Irrigation is meant to supplement rainfall, but many arid parts of the Plains states haven’t received typical rainfall in recent years. Without irrigation, farmers may have to cut back on growing lucrative crops like corn and soybeans, in favor of crops like winter wheat and beans, which can require less water.

More Ogallala Aquifer coverage here.

Robbing our groundwater savings accounts for today’s needs — The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Dick Wolfe, Colorado’s state water engineer, recently defined “sustainable groundwater supply” as one that is managed so that recharge matches withdrawals in a way to avoid long-term depletion of the aquifer.

By that definition, Colorado is not, for the most part, using its aquifers sustainably. Nor, for that matter, is most of the nation or world.

That much was made clear at a conference on Dec. 4 that was conducted by the American Ground Water Trust. Andrew Stone, the organization’s executive director, said 14 percent of all water used to irrigate crops in the United States comes from mining groundwater aquifers. This started slowly, but picked up as pumps and cheap energy became available around the end of World War II. The extraction by farmers and cities of water above the rate of recharge is now close to 400 cubic kilometers.

“We are robbing our savings account,” he said.

Driven by population growth and the uncertain effects of climate change, pressures on these subterranean savings accounts will only worsen, he said. This is not inevitable. He cited Los Angeles, which after World War II turned to groundwater exploitation to satisfy growth. “In the 1960s, it was pretty clear that the LA Basin was cruising for big trouble,” he said. But unsustainable exploitation has ended.

Problems of groundwater exploitation are common in many areas of the country, but solutions must be forged locally, “aquifer by aquifer, region by region,” said Stone.

Sobering statistics

The day was littered with fascinating statistics. Jeff Lukas, of the Western Water Assessment, explained that of the 95 million acre-feet that falls on Colorado, only 14 million acre-feet end up as runoff in our streams and rivers. The remainder, 80 million acre-feet, evaporates or gets drawn back into the atmospheric through transpiration. Together, the two are called evapotranspiration, or ET.

This rate of ET will almost certainly rise as the atmosphere warms. In the last 30 years, temperatures have ratcheted up 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Climate models forecast another increase of between 2.5 to 5 degrees by mid-century in Colorado. By mid-century, the hottest summers of the last 50 to 100 years will become the norm.

Too, everything from corn to urban lawns will need 5 to 30 percent more moisture during the longer, hotter summers—assuming precipitation does not increase.

How much precipitation will change as the result of elevated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere remains a mystery. Unlike temperatures, average precipitation in Colorado has not changed appreciably in the last three decades. Climate models have been clear about increasing temperatures, but precipitation remains a flip of the coin.

However, warming alone will drive changes, “pushing both the supply and demand in the wrong direction,” said Lukas. Increased evapotranspiration will reduce runoff and the amount of moisture available to percolate into soils and down into aquifers. Spring runoff has already accelerated and will come one to three weeks earlier.

Bottom line: Hotter temperatures will drive farmers to suck up more subterranean water. If anything, aquifers will recharge more slowly.

Wolfe, in his turn at the microphone, had even more statistics: Of Colorado’s 16 million acre-feet, 10 million acre-feet flow out of state, mostly as a result of compacts governing the Colorado and other rivers.

“That leaves us about 6 million acre-feet in Colorado to use,” he said. This surface water provides about 83 percent of water used in Colorado, and the other 17 percent comes from aquifers, which are tapped by 270,000 wells.

Of this groundwater, 85 percent goes to agriculture, for more than 2 million acres, but there’s also a strong urban component. One in five Coloradans get their water from wells. Most prominent are Denver’s southern suburbs in Douglas County.

Denver’s South Metro

South Metro has been a poster child for living in the moment. It’s affluent and rapidly growing. Served almost exclusively by wells, the residents of Castle Park, Parker and adjoining areas comprise about 6 percent of Colorado’s population but command 30 percent of income. Today’s population of 300,000 residents is projected to grow to 550,000 by mid-century.

Wells have been dropping rapidly, five feet in just one year in Dawson, one of the aquifers.

Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, explained that it was always understood that wells would not last forever. The area had hoped to benefit from Denver’s Two Forks Dam, which was to have been filled primarily by expanded diversions from the Western Slope.

Two Forks was sunk by environmental concerns in the early 1990s. Inconveniently, Douglas County surged in population, routinely landing in the top 10 of the nation’s fastest-growing counties, a distinction that only lately has abated.

Other projects have also nudged the South Metro area off its exclusive dependence on groundwater, but even collectively they do not provide the answer. Hecox called for continued efforts to pinpoint needs while creating a new generation of partnerships and infrastructure.

Can South Metro’s needs for sustainable water supplies be answered by building a giant pipeline from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, on the Utah-Wyomng border? That idea was proposed in 2006 by entrepreneur Aaron Million, and then echoed by Frank Jaeger, the now-retired director of Parker Water and Sanitation District.

Hecox said the Bureau of Reclamation study about water availability from Flaming Gorge has not been completed. That study will provide the 14 members in Hecox’s South Metro coalition “base information on which to decide whether we want to pursue it any further,” he said.

Two key agriculture areas

Two agriculture areas in Colorado that rely upon aquifers are in arguably worse shape. The San Luis Valley has an area called the Closed Basin. With the arrival of electricity to farms in the 1950s, large-scale pumping began and, for a number of years, all went well, said Steve Vandiver, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

Despite earlier hints of problems, the magnitude of over-pumping started becoming apparent in 1998. One million acre-feet had been pumped from the aquifer above the amount of recharge. Figuring out what to do took time and negotiation. “There have been rocks thrown from every quarter,” he said.

The plan now in place has cut pumping by 30 percent during the last three years. The amount of irrigated acreage has declined from 175,00 to 150,000 acres. Water use on those remaining acres has been reduced in some cases by planting different, less water-intensive crops and also by using different irrigation methods.

Up to 300,000 cubic feet per second of water continues to be pumped on the fields in the Closed Basin on hot summer days.

And the Ogallala….

The Ogallala Aquifer is perhaps America’s best-known story of groundwater depletion. It extends over parts of eight states, from Texas to South Dakota, and the aquifer has declined at a shocking rate in several of those states, but more slowly or not at all in places, especially the Nebraska Sand Hills.

The Republican River Basin of northeastern Colorado is emblematic of many. Farmers working with local districts and the state government have been shifting the paradigm. Whether they’re shifting rapidly enough is an open question.

The river and its tributaries originate on the high plains, gaining no benefit from mountain snowpack. Yet this region had 480,000 irrigated acres in an area where annual precipitation is only 17 inches a year.

The key: mining the Ogallala. In the late 1970s, Colorado began taking action to slow the unsustainable over-pumping, but more radical measures were triggered by the need to comply with the interstate compact governing the river shared with Nebraska and Kansas. Colorado was forced to release more water downstream.

It did this partly by abandoning Bonny Reservoir, eliminating the evaporative losses. At greater expense, the district constructed an expensive pipeline and now pumps water—ironically from wells—to release into the Republican River at the state line. The total cost of the pipeline and the purchase of water rights was $48 million.

Much is being done to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg of exhausted aquifer water, but Deb Daniel, general manager of the Republican River Water Conservation District, suggested the magnitude of the challenge when she said: “Sustainable, that’s a scary word where I come from.”

(For a story I recently wrote about the Ogallala in Colorado, see the Headwaters Magazine website).

Wells along the South Platte

Unlike everything else said in the day, several speakers argued that not enough pumping has been occurring along the South Platte River. Their solution: more reservoirs and also more acreage returned to production.

Robert A. Longenbaugh, a consulting water engineer, pointed to 400,000 acre-feet average annually flowing into Nebraska above the compact requirement. “I call that a waste of water,” he said. At the same time, he and others pointed to reports of basements in Weld County getting flooded because of rising groundwater levels.

Even in the 1960s, a Colorado law was adopted that formally recognized that aquifers and surface streamflows comingled waters . In other words, if you have a well a quarter-mile from the South Platte River at Greeley and pump it, that might mean less water in the river as it flows toward Fort Morgan.

The drought of 2002 forced the issue, and in 2006 the state put well irrigators into the priority system. In 2012, a hot and dry year, many wells had to be shut down and corn and other corps left to dry up. Longenbaugh called for changes.

“Strict priority administration of ground and surface rights does not maximize the beneficial use,” he declared. Instead, he wants to se a “real-time management of the South Platte, to monitor surface and ground water and “make short-term decisions” looking out six months ahead while still maintaining the priority-appropriation doctrine that is the bedrock of Colorado water law.

A panel of state legislators later in the day acknowledged varying degrees of agreement with Longenbaugh’s statement. Sen. Mary Hodge, a Democrat from Brighton, described a pendulum that went from “too lax” to now one of being “too stringent.”

Sen. Vicki Marble, a Republican from Fort Collins, described the situation as deserving of an “emergency measure.” She later added: “We should let people self-regulate,” while suggesting that the wells should be allowed to pump. “It’s their right,” she said.

More groundwater coverage here.

Farming the Ogallala — Radio Colorado College #RepublicanRiver

From KRCC (Shelley Schlendler):

Ever since the Ice Ages, the Ogallala’s been slowly accumulating water. Modern farmers, though, pump so much water that this “timeless” aquifer is starting to run out. Someday up ahead, Northeast Colorado may have to curtail some crops, and some farm towns might become ghost towns.

Towns are few and far between vast expanses of short grass prairie in Northeastern Colorado. This semi-arid desert gets on average only 17 inches of precipitation every year.

But near the farming community of Wray, there’s a feedlot that depends on plenty of water. A few miles further away are mounds of freshly dug up potatoes and conveyor belts that hoist the spuds into trucks.

Around another bend, dinosaur-sized pivots watch over cornfields. Next spring, those giant sprinklers will spray enough water to grow row after row of leafy green stalks.

“Yuma County is one of the top two counties in the state, and sometimes ranked in the top 10 in the nation, for corn production,” says Deb Daniel, General Manager for the Republican River Conservation District.

This river basin springs from streams that bubble up from the Ogallala aquifer then flow east, starting in Northeastern Colorado around Sterling and Wray, and also around Burlington, near the Kansas border.

Daniel says the aquifer is how farmers in this area get their water.

“We don’t benefit from the snowmelt and the runoff that a lot of the South Platte and the Colorado River benefit from,” says Daniel. “All of our water here is stored underground and very very little of it is recharged.”

This region’s aqueous gold is the Ogallala Aquifer. Stretching from South Dakota down to Texas, the Ogallala is one of the world’s largest underground reservoirs. Think of it as an enormous bowl that’s hundreds of feet under ground, filled with sand, gravel and water that’s been drip-dropping in for thousands of years.

Daniel says she thinks of it as water within a sponge. “And we have all of these straws poked into this sponge from all of these irrigation wells, municipal wells, commercial wells for feedlots and hog confinement, so all of these straws are poked down into this sponge of water.”

Those “straws,” slurping the ancient Ogallala, add up to an enormous gulp. Colorado’s Deputy State Water Engineer Mike Sullivan says that if you think of how much snowmelt it takes to supply Denver, Boulder, Greeley, Fort Collins—the northern Front Range cities—that’s also how much farmers pump from the Ogallala in the Republican River Conservation District.

“They’re both withdrawing or diverting about 700,000 acre feet of water in an average year,” says Sullivan.

But there’s a big difference between snowmelt and the slow-to-recharge Ogallala. “One’s a renewable supply, and the other is a static supply that is being consumed,” adds Sullivan.

Legal battles over just who gets to “use up” the Ogallala have led the state to monitor pumping rates. A well house near a center pivot houses pipes, a pump, and a fist-sized dial, called a flow meter.

“Each year,” says Deb Daniel, “all the growers have to send in an annual water use report.”

According to water engineer Mike Sullivan, the goal is to get more stewardship tied to water use.

“You got a tremendous economy out there, and we don’t want to see that basically dry up and blow away.”

In shallower areas, the Ogallala already is drying up – in Southern Kansas, Texas, and in a small town near I-70, called Stratton, Colorado, where Tim Pautler lives and farms. Pautler is secretary of the board for the Republic River Conservation District.

“My domestic well, 50 years ago, probably had 50 to 60 to 70 feet of water,” says Pautler. “I’m down to 17. You go west of here, you can find farmsteads that are actually out of water.”

Pautler wants to save enough of his local part of the Ogallala so that maybe his grandkids can farm around Stratton someday. To keep this in mind, he shares what an old-timer told him about how to fill a glass of water:

“He says, before we had running water in the house, you had to go outside and hand pump your water, and the glass was right there,” Paulter says. “You didn’t rinse your glass. You just filled your glass. And you didn’t put anymore in the glass than what you could consume, because you didn’t want to throw it away. Things are going to go full circle. At some point we’re going to be going, gosh I wish I just had some of the water that I wasted in the last 50 years.”

Pautler has retired irrigation wells in exchange for government conservation money. His family is now growing drought tolerant wheat and dryland corn.

Mike Sullivan says that if flow meter monitoring leads to more water conservation, the Ogallala might change from an aquifer that’s drying up to one that can last.

Connecting the Drops is a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio Stations and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more about water in the state at http://YourWaterColorado.org.

More Republican River Basin coverage here.

One Farm at a Time, USDA Helps Landowners Conserve Water in Ogallala Region

Here’s the blog post from the US Department of Agriculture:

James Pike has tackled an important and thorny issue in Laramie County, Wyoming – water conservation. More specifically, this district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has diligently worked to encourage farmers and ranchers in the region that is fed by the Ogallala Aquifer to use water wisely.

Stretching from western Texas to South Dakota, the Ogallala Aquifer supports nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the United States. Underlying about 225,000 square miles of the Great Plains, water from the aquifer is vital to agricultural, cities and industry, making up 30 percent of all groundwater used for irrigation in America.

NRCS’ Ogallala Aquifer Initiative aims to reduce aquifer water use, improve water quality and enhance the economic viability of croplands and rangelands in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Too many wells combined with inefficient irrigation have made water conservation a volatile topic in Wyoming.

The result of Pike’s hard work for Wyoming so far: 1 trillion gallons of water saved annually or 3,000-acre feet. To put acre feet into perspective, in the United States, one acre foot of water is used by a suburban family of five each year.

The former Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, or AWEP, provides farmers like Mike Poelma, who grows wheat on 125 acres, with financial incentives to not use underground water source for crops – only rainwater.

Poelma hopes his one irrigation well and two smaller wells will eventually recharge with water. But he knows it’s not an easy fix and will take some time.

Additionally, AWEP also provides financial assistance for practices for better efficient water use. The program has helped save energy that would have gone to growing marginal crops. From 2010 to 2014, NRCS invested about $2 million through the program in Laramie County.

The 2014 Farm Bill has many other programs are available to landowners who want to help conserve water, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is the program that now funds NRCS’ Ogallala Aquifer Initiative.

This initiative in the eight states saved enough water during fiscal 2010 and 2011 to provide water for over 53,000 families or 265,000 people.

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here and here.