The Ogallala Aquifer

Feb 27, 2017

A southwest Kansas father and daughter adjust irrigation wells.
Credit Janet Huelskamp - Fowler, KS

Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the High Plains, by William Ashworth, is a High Plains Public Radio community read.  The book chronicles the development, management and possible fate of the Ogallala, the largest aquifer within the High Plains aquifer system.  At its essence, the book is about the people and the place that rely on the aquifer. I am Susan Stover with the Kansas Geological Survey, University of Kansas.   

The High Plains aquifer stretches from South Dakota to Texas and New Mexico. It supplies the water for nearly a third of our nation’s irrigated crops and has transformed the region into some of the nation’s most productive acreage with fields upon fields of corn, alfalfa, soybeans, wheat, sorghum and cotton.  The aquifer also supports the cattle, dairy and hog industries, meatpacking and milk processing plants, ethanol production, and communities.  It is a vibrant economy, one that runs on water.

The landscape of the High Plains region is far different from the one viewed in 1819 by a U.S. Army contingency sent out to map the territory.  Major Steven H. Long described it as a great desert, one that was “uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their sustenance” (p 131). Irrigation changed everything; first with ditch irrigation from the few streams that run through the region, and explosively after the Ogallala aquifer could be economically tapped.  Today, maps of Kansas groundwater wells drilled into the aquifer, displayed on the Kansas Geological Survey website, show a well located essentially everywhere enough water can be pumped. Statewide, irrigation accounts for 85% of the water use in Kansas, the majority of it from the High Plains aquifer.

The problem with the Ogallala aquifer is that its current rate of use cannot continue indefinitely.  In most areas south of the Platte River, the aquifer is in decline.  Adding to the concern, this is a semi-arid region with low rainfall and limited surface water.  Unlike oil or gas, there is no substitute for water.

What is being done about the aquifer’s overuse and what do people think should be done about it?  Ogallala Blue gives a good accounting of the aquifer’s history and development, uses and attitudes, as based on Ashworth’s extensive personal interviews with its users.  Much has changed in the decade since this book came out with adoption of farming practices such as no till and strip till to hold more moisture on the land, development of drought tolerant crops, improved crop water management, and programs from the States and the USDA to conserve water.  In other ways, though, not a lot has changed.  The basic problem of an aquifer in serious decline remains.  What will be the future?  The rest of the story lies with the people of the High Plains.

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.