Can Technology Help the Ogallala?

Mar 13, 2017

Center Pivot in Trego County, Kansas
Credit Kansas Geological Survey

Technology made it possible to develop the Ogallala aquifer and turn the High Plains region into the nation’s breadbasket. William Ashworth describes this transition in Ogallala Blue, the High Plains Public Radio community read.  Intense pumping, though, has caused many areas to have large groundwater declines.  Can technology also provide a way to extend and conserve the aquifer into the future?

That is certainly a possibility.  The state water plans for Texas, Kansas and Colorado all propose meeting future water needs, in part, by implementing technology to conserve water today.

Great advancements have been made on increasing irrigation system efficiencies. Improvements come from more water being taken up by the crop and less water lost to wind drift, evaporation or surface runoff.  Over time, farmers are shifting from using inefficient flood irrigation (gravity flow down furrows) to efficient center pivots (large sprinklers), to the highly efficient drip irrigation systems.  Other improvements include soil moisture probes that measure water at the root level, weather station data that informs irrigation scheduling decisions, and remote control of irrigation systems. 

Adopting new irrigation equipment is an expensive investment.  Primary motivators for producers have been the labor savings and the ability to continue irrigating with a well in which the water yields have declined.  In the past, when the well capacity dropped enough, a farmer might have had to let the field go dryland. The newer irrigation systems can run on a water well that yields fewer gallons per minute, which keeps irrigation an option for longer.  In effect, it allows the aquifer to be more efficiently drained.

Historically, more efficient use of irrigation water did not result in water conservation. It produced more crops, more efficiently grown, which was the farmers’ intent. 

Now, however, some producers are focused on their net profit from crop production using significantly less water.  They use less than their water right allows and less than the well capacity can pump to achieve real water conservation, so that water will be available further into the future.

In Kansas, water conservation plans have been locally developed and implemented, with water use reduction goals of 18%, 28% and more.  There are now multi-year examples of farmers conserving water and remaining profitable, with measurable positive response in the aquifer level.  How widespread will the conservation efforts be?  That depends on the thousands of individual water right owners’ decisions. 

This is Susan Stover with the Kansas Geological Survey for the High Plains Public Radio Readers Book Club.  We’re reading William Ashworth’s Ogallala Blue as part of the 2017 spring read on Water and Replenishment.