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Kansas Geological Survey
Winter 2002
Vol. 8.1

Ogallala Aquifer


Despite the complex nature of both the problem and the potential solutions, some progress has been made towards development of a plan to conserve the aquifer's remaining water



Ogallala Aquifer–page 1

From the Director–page 2

New Publications–page 3

Energy Information–page 3

A Place To Visit–page 4

Earth Science Teacher Honored–page 4




Declining water levels in the Ogallala aquifer have gotten increasing attention lately. Although most Kansans agree that something must be done to preserve the Ogallala, the main water source for much of western Kansas, any plan to conserve this crucial resource must take into account complex issues and divergent viewpoints.

Reaction to Governor Bill Graves' 2001 State of the State proposal, that we stop depleting the state's aquifers by the year 2020, highlights the range of opinion. While many said the 2020 goal for zero depletion—to take no more water from the aquifer than is replenished by rainfall and streamflow—would destroy the western Kansas economy, others argued the goal wasn’t enough to preserve the aquifer for future generations.

About the only thing that no one disputes is that the Ogallala contains a finite amount of water. The Ogallala is part of a larger aquifer system, the High Plains aquifer, that extends under eight states in the Great Plains. Measurements of ground-water levels in Kansas indicate that much of the Ogallala has declined since the onset of large-scale irrigation in the 1950's and 1960's.

Based on past usage trends, researchers at the Kansas Geological Survey made projections about the aquifer's usable lifetime, which varies considerably from place to place. Although many parts of the aquifer should be able to support pumping for 100 years or more, some parts are already effectively exhausted: they've dropped below 30 feet of saturated thickness, the minimum amount considered necessary to support large-scale pumping. Other parts will be exhausted in the next 25 years.

Despite the complex nature of both the problem and potential solutions, some progress has been made towards developing a plan to conserve the aquifer's remaining water. Two advisory committees appointed by the Kansas Water Office developed recommendations that were finalized in a report released in the fall of 2001. The committees, a management and a technical advisory committee, were made up largely of people from western Kansas and included staff from the KGS, Kansas Water Office, Division of Water Resources (Kansas Department of Agriculture), Kansas State University, Kansas Department of Commerce and Housing, U.S. Geological Survey, and local Groundwater Management Districts (GMDs).

"The report is a classic exercise in public decision making on a complicated and fundamentally important issue," said technical advisory committee member Wayne Bossert, manager of the Northwest Kansas GMD. "Somehow we’ve got to get all the issues out there, and let the majority of Kansans make a decision. This report is a pretty good effort at that."

Chief among the report's recommendations was a proposal to divide the aquifer into subunits. These aquifer subunits would be managed differently based on their different characteristics—the saturated thickness of the subsurface sediments, how easily they transmit water, and the rate at which they are replenished by precipitation and streamflow. The three western Kansas GMDs, locally managed political subdivisions, would be responsible for delineating the subunits within their districts.

To help the GMDs in this task, KGS water researchers are compiling and evaluating a range of data, including best estimates of aquifer recharge, ground-water levels, water usage, and climate trends for different parts of the aquifer.

The report also recommended using incentive-based programs (such as federal funds to buy and retire water rights) and improvements in technology and education to promote conservation and help extend the life of the aquifer. An educational resource center, the Ogallala Aquifer Institute, would further the educational part of these recommendations. The Institute is located at the Finnup Center for Conservation Education in Garden City, Kansas, and will provide education support activities for schools as well as adult education opportunities.

Although some have criticized the report for not setting specific deadlines, Bossert says it's a "vehicle that allows anything to happen, but doesn't require anything to happen. However, it pretty clearly takes us one step further with its strong expectation that everyone's goal is to at least slow the decline rate."

The Kansas Water Authority approved these recommendations for inclusion in the draft 2004 State Water Plan, the blueprint for managing the state’s water resources. The recommendations will be discussed during the March meetings of the 12 Basin Advisory Committees.

In the meantime, individuals, governmental agencies, and private organizations continue to address the issues surrounding the Ogallala aquifer and to work towards a plan to extend the life of this important and dwindling resource.

For more information about the High Plains aquifer, see An Atlas of the High Plains Aquifer (KGS Educational Series 14) and KGS Public Information Circular 18.

Extent of the Ogallala aquifer (shaded blue) within the High Plains aquifer in Kansas. The Ogallala does not include the portion of the High Plains aquifer in south-central Kansas (shaded green).
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