Ogallala Aquifer

Nadya Faulx / KMUW

Kansas’ main water resource is depleting faster than it can be refilled—but we as consumers have a significant stake in conserving what’s there. That’s the takeaway of a new Exploration Place exhibit that looks at the High Plains aquifer, and our relationship to it. KMUW’s Nadya Faulx takes us along on a tour.

ExplorationPlace.org

A new exhibit that looks at Kansas' relationship to one of its most vital resources opens at Exploration Place tomorrow.

The Big Splash will show visitors the inner workings of an aquifer, as well as where our water comes from, and how it’s used.

Most of Kansas’ water resources are underground: It's one of 8 states that sits on top of the High Plains Aquifer. But that source is rapidly being depleted.

Bryan Thompson / Heartland Health Monitor

The economy of western Kansas is based on the Ogallala Aquifer. But that ancient underground water supply is being rapidly depleted. The Kansas Water Office is teaming up with forward-looking farmers in an effort to demonstrate that new irrigation technologies can reduce the demand on the aquifer without sacrificing crop yields.

From mid-May through the end of August, a sound is heard almost non-stop in farm fields all across western Kansas. It’s the sound of an irrigation pump pulling water from deep underground to nourish thirsty crops. Tom Willis owns several of these wells.

Joe Dyer, flickr Creative Commons

There's a meeting planned this week in Kansas to discuss concerns about using water pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer in northeast Colorado to help satisfy streamflow requirements on the Republican River.

The gathering Tuesday in St. Francis will include Governor Sam Brownback along with agriculture and water officials.

Representative Rick Billinger of Goodland wants to gather input on the pumping project and "possible ways to preserve the Ogallala for future users."

The Kansas Geological Survey says average groundwater levels are still declining in western Kansas, but at a slower rate.

The agency released preliminary data yesterday from the measurements of some 1,400 water wells taken earlier this year.

Most of the wells draw from the High Plains aquifer, which includes the Equus Beds and Great Bend Prairie aquifer in south-central Kansas and the Ogallala aquifer in western Kansas.

Water levels declined an average of 0.87 feet in 2014, a slower rate than the drop in 2013.

KS Water Office Presentation

A lot has changed in the three decades since the idea of building an aqueduct from the Missouri River to western Kansas was first studied and shelved. For one thing, the water shortages that were mere projections then are now imminent.

That reality, as Bryan Thompson reports, has prompted state officials to dust off the study and re-examine the aqueduct idea.

The depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is causing western Kansas to lose many of its perennial streams.

Jim Butler is the geohydrology section chief with the Kansas Geological Survey.

Butler said at a workshop in Lawrence last week that many streams in western Kansas used to be fed by the aquifer because its water table was higher than the streams.

He says because the aquifer's water table has dropped 3 feet or more below the stream beds, most of the streams are now dry year round.

Little use is being made of a law that allows farmers to form groups that can require deep reductions in irrigation.

The hope was that if enough western Kansas farmers pared their water use, the Ogallalah aquifer's lifespan could be extended. Two years later though, only one group of 110 farmers, who own 99 square miles in Sheridan and Thomas counties near Colby, has formed.

A proposal to curtail irrigation pumping from the Ogallala Aquifer has been rejected by voters in a western Kansas groundwater management district.

The proposed creation of a Local Enhanced Management Area was defeated 173-158 in a recent vote by water rights holders and property owners in the five-county district.

A 2012 Kansas law provides for creation of such management areas specifically to extend the life of the aquifer. The board of Groundwater Management District No. 1 asked voters to approve a six-year plan to reduce pumping for irrigation by 20 percent.

Kansas water officials want to discover how feasible it would be to build a 360-mile aqueduct. The aqueduct would tap the Missouri River to support agriculture in western parts of the state.

Tracy Streeter with the Kansas Water Office told legislators Tuesday the study would begin next year and take about 18 months to complete.

Officials want to divert as much as 4 million acre-feet of water and sending it west, to help support irrigated farming of corn and other crops.

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