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Kansas Geological Survey, Public Information Circular (PIC) 18
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Water-level Declines in the Aquifer

Large-scale irrigation began in western Kansas in the late 1800's, with the use of ditches to divert water from the Arkansas River. As technology improved, ground water became the major irrigation source because surface water (lakes, rivers, and streams) is relatively scarce in western Kansas. With the advent of large-capacity pumps that were capable of drawing several hundred gallons of water per minute, people began to exploit that ground water. Using a technique called flood irrigation, water was pumped through long pipes or ditches along the edges of a field, then out onto rows of crops (fig. 5A).

Figure 5--Aerial photos of (A) flood and (B) center-pivot irrigation (photos courtesy of Tom Schmiedeler, Washburn University).

Flood irrigation realeases water at edge of field; water flows across field.

Center-pivot sprinkler moves along radius in circular field.

In the 1950's and 1960's, technological developments led to a dramatic increase in large-scale pumping. In particular, center-pivot irrigation systems--large sprinklers that roll across the land on wheels--allowed people to irrigate uneven terrain, thus opening up large new areas for irrigation (fig. 5B). These irrigation methods led to the cultivation of crops, such as corn, that could not previously be grown reliably in the area. That grain production led, in turn, to large feedlots and packing plants and a boom in the economy of much of western Kansas, all largely dependent on ground water. One study estimated that the economic impact of irrigation in southwestern Kansas alone amounts to more than $188 million annually.

For many years, people believed that the High Plains aquifer contained an inexhaustible amount of water. However, large-volume pumping (mostly for irrigation) eventually led to substantial declines in the water table, and people realized that the amount of water in the aquifer was finite and could be exhausted. Much of the Ogallala portion of the High Plains aquifer has declined since predevelopment, with some areas having declines of more than 60 percent (fig. 6).

Figure 6--Percent change in saturated thickness for the High Plains aquifer in Kansas, predevelopment to 1997-99.

Greatest decreases in Greeley, Wichita, Scott, Finney, Hamilton, Stanton.

Nonetheless, in much of the aquifer, considerable amounts of water remain. For example, declines of 100 feet or more may have occurred in parts of southwestern Kansas, but that represents less than half of the original saturated thickness, and 100 to 200 feet (or more) of saturated thickness may remain. On the other hand, in parts of west-central Kansas--such as Greeley, Wichita, Scott, and northern Finney counties--the original saturated thickness was much less, often less than 100 feet. In these places, where 50 to 75 feet of the aquifer have been depleted, less than 50 feet of saturated thickness remains.

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Kansas Geological Survey, Public Outreach
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Web version October 2001