Challenges to the Ogallala Aquifer

The Ogallala (OH-ga-la-la) Aquifer stretches underneath 174,000 square miles of dry plains, making it one of the largest aquifers in the world. It supplies water to some of the thirstiest farmland in the nation, including parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, and South Dakota.

This aquifer has been a real boon to farmers over the years. With the rise of industrial agriculture, beginning in about the 1940s, irrigation became an important part of maintaining extensive crop production in arid and semiarid places, such as the High Plains of Kansas. In this region, water from the Ogallala Aquifer supports vast fields of wheat, sorghum, and even corn. Without irrigation, however, farmers in the High Plains would lose their corn crops four out of every five years.

Unfortunately, irrigation is not without drawbacks. The Ogallala Aquifer is not an inexhaustible resource. It must be recharged by rain and melted snow trickling down through the soil. But this recharging is limited for two reasons:

  1. The High Plains receive little annual precipitation.
  2. In many places a hard mineral called “caliche” prevents water from penetrating into the ground.

The result is that the Ogallala Aquifer recharges very slowly. In Kansas, that means it receives up to six inches of water a year.

On the other hand, much of the High Plains uses over 50 acre-feet of water per square mile annually. Parts of southwestern Kansas use over 500 acre-feet per square mile every year.

Starting in the 1970s, farmers became aware that they were using the water in the Ogallala Aquifer at an unsustainable rate. The question then became, “What on earth can we do about it?” Raising crops is vital to the High Plains economy, but it is a practice that is nearly impossible without the aid of irrigation.

One thing that has changed for the better over the years is the reduction of wasted water during irrigation. Improved center pivot irrigation systems have been developed, which deliver the water directly to the plants with minimal loss. Whereas it was common in the 1960s and 1970s to see irrigation water running out of the fields into roadside ditches, such waste is now relatively rare.

However, some would contend that this improvement has created a new problem. Because center pivot irrigation is so efficient in delivering water to the spot where it is needed, it has enabled farmers in dry areas to grow water-loving crops like corn on an even larger scale than before. This in turn may deplete the aquifer at an even faster rate.

No one knows just what the future may hold for the Ogallala Aquifer. Farmers continue to experiment with water conservation practices, while scientists work to release more groundwater from underneath the aquifer. All agree that preventing water depletion is critical to the people of the High Plains.

Helpful Resource

Kansas High Plains Aquifer Atlas
Everything you could want to know about the Ogallala Aquifer in Kansas, from water levels to irrigation trends.