Vast, vital and vulnerable is the Ogallala Aquifer. Lying beneath eight U.S. states and encompassing more than 170,000 acres, the Ogallala is a sizeable and important water resource that has brought life to Kansans in both rural and urban areas. Not only is the aquifer used for production agriculture, but it also provides water for people’s homes and for other municipal uses. It’s no secret, however, that the Ogallala has been overused, and its depletion could pose a problem for everyone and the Kansas economy.
David Steward, a professor of civil engineering at Kansas State University, and a team of researchers recently completed a study that examined the future of the Ogallala Aquifer. The study found that if current usage of the aquifer continues, as much as 69 percent of it would be depleted by 2060.
Usage is exceeding the recharge of the aquifer, which is leading to its depletion. Steward said that natural recharge of the aquifer is currently supplying 15 percent of the pumping that’s going into the wells.
“What happens is that as you pump the well, the groundwater goes down, and the ability to extract the water decreases,” Steward said.
The Kansas Water Appropriation Act protects both the people's right to use Kansas water and the state's supplies of groundwater and surface water for the future. The law is administered by the Kansas Department of Agriculture's (KDA) Division of Water Resources, which issues permits for water usage. Every well used for irrigation, for more than two acres, or for municipal use must have a water permit. According to the KDA, water used solely for domestic purposes—for households, watering livestock on pasture, or watering up to two acres of your lawn or garden—does not need a permit.
Steward said that currently there are about 66,000 water permit numbers in Kansas.
“Every one of those files has a water use report every year,” Steward said. “Most of those are metered, at least in western Kansas. It’s very accurate water data we have in terms of water use.”
The water data helps monitor use of the aquifer, which is what Steward used in his research to examine the changes in elevation levels of the wells.
Some western Kansas farmers have taken measures to reduce water use to extend the life of the aquifer, said Scott Staggenborg, K-State adjunct professor of agronomy. But, it will take the efforts of all farmers and people living in cities to ensure the resource is available in the future. It’s possible that the aquifer could be pumped to the point that there’s no water available, which has happened in areas of the Texas High Plains and in northwest Kansas.