@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.

@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.

@USGS: High Plains Aquifer Groundwater Levels Continue to Decline

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

Here’s the release from the USGS:

The U.S. Geological Survey has released a new report detailing changes of groundwater levels in the High Plains aquifer. The report presents water-level change data in the aquifer for two separate periods: from 1950 – the time prior to significant groundwater irrigation development – to 2015, and from 2013 to 2015.

“Change in storage for the 2013 to 2015 comparison period was a decline of 10.7 million acre-feet, which is about 30 percent of the change in recoverable water in storage calculated for the 2011 to 2013 comparison period,” said Virginia McGuire, USGS scientist and lead author of the study. “The smaller decline for the 2013 to 2015 comparison period is likely related to reduced groundwater pumping.”

In 2015, total recoverable water in storage in the aquifer was about 2.91 billion acre-feet, which is an overall decline of about 273.2 million acre-feet, or 9 percent, since predevelopment. Average area-weighted water-level change in the aquifer was a decline of 15.8 feet from predevelopment to 2015 and a decline of 0.6 feet from 2013 to 2015.

The USGS study used water-level measurements from 3,164 wells for predevelopment to 2015 and 7,524 wells for the 2013 to 2015 study period.

The High Plains aquifer, also known as the Ogallala aquifer, underlies about 112 million acres, or 175,000 square miles, in parts of eight states, including: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. The USGS, at the request of the U.S. Congress and in cooperation with numerous state, local, and federal entities, has published reports on water-level changes in the High Plains aquifer since 1988 in response to substantial water-level declines in large areas of the aquifer.

“This multi-state, groundwater-level monitoring study tracks water-level changes in wells screened in the High Plains aquifer and located in all eight states that overlie the aquifer. The study 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.”

High Plains aquifer water-level changes, predevelopment (about 1950) to 2015. Figure 1 from USGS SIR 2017-5040.(Public domain.)
Bar graph showing change in water-in-storage, predevelopment to 2015, by state and in total for the High Plains aquifer. States in region include Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. (Public domain.)
Bar graph showing change in recoverable water in storage, 2011 to 2013 (orange) and 2013 to 2015 (green), in million acre-feet by state and in total for the High Plains aquifer. Recoverable water in storage from 2013 to 2015 for the aquifer declined 10.7 million acre-feet, which is about 30 percent of the recoverable water in storage change from 2011 to 2013. This difference is likely related to reduced groundwater pumpage during the 2013 and 2014 irrigation seasons as compared to the 2011 and 2012 irrigation seasons. (Public domain.)

RRWCD meeting in holyoke Thurs., july 13

Holyoke photo credit dankalal.net.

From the Holyoke Enterprise:

The Board of Directors of the Republican River Water Conservation District will be holding its regular quarterly meeting in Holyoke Thursday, July 13, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Phillips County Event Center Biesemeier Room.

The agenda includes board president’s report; general manager’s report; quarterly financial report and expenditures; report regarding the Compact Compliance Pipeline; program updates and reports, including reports from the RRWCD’s engineer and legal counsel; RRWCD committee reports; Associated Organization Reports, including Colorado Water Congress, South Platte Roundtable, Water Preservation Partnership, Yuma County Water Authority and Yuma County Weed Control; report on South Fork Project by Nancy Smith, The Nature’s Conservancy; report by Yuma County Pest District; report by Mike Sullivan, assistant state engineer, and Scott Steinbrecher, Colorado attorney general assistant on negotiations with Kansas regarding Bonny; donation to Yuma County Pest District, WPP Resolution 17-01; and engagement letter for 2017 audit with Winfrey, County and Hays.

@USGS: Water-level and recoverable water in storage changes, High Plains aquifer, predevelopment to 2015 and 2013–15

Click here to read the report. Here’s the release from the US Geological Survey:

The U.S. Geological Survey has released a new report detailing changes of groundwater levels in the High Plains aquifer. The report presents water-level change data in the aquifer for two separate periods: from 1950 – the time prior to significant groundwater irrigation development – to 2015, and from 2013 to 2015.

“Change in storage for the 2013 to 2015 comparison period was a decline of 10.7 million acre-feet, which is about 30 percent of the change in recoverable water in storage calculated for the 2011 to 2013 comparison period,” said Virginia McGuire, USGS scientist and lead author of the study. “The smaller decline for the 2013 to 2015 comparison period is likely related to reduced groundwater pumping.”

In 2015, total recoverable water in storage in the aquifer was about 2.91 billion acre-feet, which is an overall decline of about 273.2 million acre-feet, or 9 percent, since predevelopment. Average area-weighted water-level change in the aquifer was a decline of 15.8 feet from predevelopment to 2015 and a decline of 0.6 feet from 2013 to 2015.

The USGS study used water-level measurements from 3,164 wells for predevelopment to 2015 and 7,524 wells for the 2013 to 2015 study period.

The High Plains aquifer, also known as the Ogallala aquifer, underlies about 112 million acres, or 175,000 square miles, in parts of eight states, including: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. The USGS, at the request of the U.S. Congress and in cooperation with numerous state, local, and federal entities, has published reports on water-level changes in the High Plains aquifer since 1988 in response to substantial water-level declines in large areas of the aquifer.

“This multi-state, groundwater-level monitoring study tracks water-level changes in wells screened in the High Plains aquifer and located in all eight states that overlie the aquifer. The study 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.”

Upper Republican Natural Resources District’s second annual water conference recap

Republican River Basin by District

From The Grant Tribune (Russ Pankonin):

Officials from Nebraska and Kansas outlined some of the key details of the agreement during the Upper Republican Natural Resources District’s second annual water conference March 27 in Imperial.

Nebraska requirements

One of Kansas’ goals in the the new agreement was to provide irrigators in the Kansas Bostwick Irrigation District (KBID) and other water users water when they needed it.

Nebraska agreed not to release water from Harlan County Lake (HCL) just to meet compact compliance.

Instead, they will work with Kansas to achieve the most efficiency from the water released.

Compliance calculations for the three Republican Basin NRDs (Upper, Middle and Lower) showed they would need to offset about 37,000 acre feet of overpumping in 2016.

Because the compliance calculations are made after the pumping season, Jesse Bradley, assistant director of Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources, said the state needed some latitude in making up any differences.

That allows Nebraska to use augmentation and streamflow to ensure there is sufficient water in HCL by June 1.

Kansas estimated it would only need about 20,000 AF from HCL in 2017. So rather than pump the other 17,000 AF, the balance will be stored underground. This reduces water loss due to evaporation from the HCL, improving efficiency of the water.

Kansas retains the right to that 17,000 AF.

Bradley said this gives Nebraska more flexibility to meet compliance with Kansas set forth by the 1943 water compact between the three states.
Kansas agreed to give Nebraska 100 percent credit towards compliance for any augmentation water released in the basin.

Bradley said the agreement provides for preserving water supplies for the future by not pumping augmentation or poorly-timed releases from HCL.
On Oct.1, the two states decide whether or not to pump the water stored underground to meet compliance.

Kansas water management

As part of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015, Nebraska was ordered to pay Kansas $5.5 million in damages for over-pumping in 2012-13.
Earl Lewis, director of the Kansas Water Office, said they happily accepted the money. Since KBID suffered the most from Nebraska’s non-compliance, Kansas allocated $3.5 million back to that area.

Lewis said they are using $2.5 million to convert KBID canals to underground pipelines. He said this will save the district between 8-10,000 AF of water on an annual basis.

Susan Metzger, Kansas’ assistant ag secretary, said technology will play a key role in the conservation of water going forward.

She said Kansas has created three water technology farms where they put into practice a variety of technological advances and conservation measures.

She said they held a field day at one of the farms and drew nearly 300 people, showing the great interest of farmers in this research.

She added they want to expand to another four farms this year.

Kansas has also created local enhanced management areas, which resemble Nebraska’s NRD system, and provide for local control in water management and conservation.

The program is starting to build momentum across the state and six management areas have been approved.
Bradley said the integrated management plans (IMP) in the Republican Basin will evolve as Kansas and Nebraska continue to work together.

The basin is already on its third generation of IMPs and predicts the fourth generation won’t be far behind. That means things are working, he added.

He noted that 2013 wasn’t a shining year for compact compliance due to drought conditions.

He said prospects for the basin, water-wise, look good going forward.

The system as a whole looks better with more water in reservoirs. In addition, the department hasn’t had to issue any closing notices on surface water for the past three years.

He added that groundwater declines in some areas are starting to stabilize.

As part of the three-state agreement, Kansas and Colorado also crafted resolutions to deal with Colorado’s compact compliance efforts.