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Kansas Geological Survey, Public Information Circular (PIC) 18
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The High Plains Aquifer

Rex Buchanan and Robert Buddemeier


The High Plains aquifer, which includes the well-known Ogallala aquifer, is the most important water source for much of western and central Kansas (fig. 1), supplying 70 percent of the water used by Kansans each day. Water from the High Plains aquifer supports the region's cities, industry, and much of its agriculture. However, large-volume pumping from this aquifer has led to steadily declining water levels in the western portion of the region, and the area faces several critical water-related issues. This Public Information Circular describes the High Plains aquifer, the effect of decades of large-volume pumping, and some responses to water issues in central and western Kansas.

[The authors thank Dave Young and Bob Sawin, Kansas Geological Survey, for their help in the preparation of this circular.]

The High Plains Aquifer Defined

Aquifers are underground deposits containing permeable rock or sediments (silts, sands, and gravels) from which water can be pumped in usable quantities. The High Plains aquifer is a regional aquifer system composed of several smaller units that are geologically similar and hydrologically connected--that is, water can move from one aquifer to the other. The High Plains aquifer system lies beneath parts of eight states in the Great Plains, including about 33,500 square miles of western and central Kansas (see fig. 1).

Aquifer characteristics are determined in large part by geology. The High Plains aquifer is composed mainly of silt, sand, gravel, and clay-rock debris that washed off the face of the Rocky Mountains and other more local sources over the past several million years. The aquifer varies greatly from place to place: thick in some places, thin in others; permeable (able to transmit water easily) in some places, less so in others. Where the deposits are thick and permeable, water is easily removed and the aquifer can support large volumes of pumping for long periods. In most areas, this water is of good quality.

The most important component of the High Plains aquifer is the Ogallala aquifer. In some locations (such as Lake Scott State Park in Scott County), the Ogallala Formation crops out at the surface, forming a naturally cemented rock layer called mortarbeds.

Figure 1--Extent of High Plains aquifer in Kansas.

Aquifer present from New Mexico-Texas border to South Dakota-Wyoming border.

In the subsurface, the Ogallala consists of silt and clay beds that are interlayered with sand and gravel that is mostly unconsolidated, or not naturally cemented together.

The eastern extension of the High Plains aquifer is composed of younger sediments that are similar to the Ogallala. These younger sediments, deposited during the Pleistocene Epoch, or Ice Ages, include the "Equus beds" aquifer (in McPherson, Reno, Harvey, and Sedgwick counties) and the "Great Bend Prairie aquifer" (in Stafford, Edwards, Pratt, Kiowa, and other counties). Also lying above the Ogallala Formation are other Pleistocene deposits and other younger deposits in the valleys of modern streams. Where these stream deposits (known as alluvium) are connected to the Ogallala or Pleistocene aquifers, the alluvial aquifers are considered part of the High Plains aquifer (see fig. 2).

Figure 2--Aquifers that make up the High Plains aquifer.

Alluvial, Ogallala, and Equus Beds and Great Bend Prairie aquifers make up the High Plains aquifer in Kansas.

Beneath the High Plains aquifer is much older, consolidated bedrock, usually limestone, sandstone, or shale (see fig. 3). In some places this bedrock holds enough water to be called an aquifer, and it may be connected to the overlying aquifer. Layers of permeable sandstone in the Dakota Formation, for example, are connected to the High Plains aquifer in parts of southwestern or south-central Kansas. Some layers of the underlying bedrock contain saltwater; where these are directly connected to the High Plains aquifer, they pose a threat to water quality.

Figure 3--Generalized cross section showing the High Plains aquifer and underlying bedrock. The Ogallala Formation, Pleistocene deposits, and alluvium combine to form the High Plains aquifer.

High Plains aquifer present above bedrock.

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Kansas Geological Survey, Public Outreach
1930 Constant Ave., Lawrence, KS 66047-3726
Phone: (785) 864-3965, Fax: (785) 864-5317
Web version October 2001