Planet Earth Weekly

Climate Change and Renewable Energy: Saving Our Planet for Future Generations


  The Depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer

Ogallala aquifer depletion

Depletion of the aquifer

“The Ogallala is recharged by rainwater but only about 1 inch of precipitation actually reaches the aquifer annually.”

By Linn Smith

April 12, 2016—–The Ogallala Aquifer is at risk of drying up! The aquifer, which is part of the High Plains Aquifer, underlies portions of 8 states, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas, and spans 175,000 sq. miles in the midwest United States. Water from the aquifer has many uses but irrigation uses the majority—57 million gallons per day! The Ogallala also supplies approximately 82% of the drinking water for the overlying states.

Water Accumulation in the Ogallala

Water started accumulating in the aquifer 15,000 years ago. Brownie Wilson, a researcher for the Kansas Geological Survey, states, “If the topsoil were rolled up like a carpet the sponge beneath would look like an empty egg carton, with peaks and valleys of varying depths. In parts of western Nebraska, where the Ogallala is plentiful, the sponge extends as far as a thousand feet below the Earth’s surface.”

Depletion of the Ogallala

The Aquifer lies beneath 8 states.

Water Extraction of the Aquifer

Large scale extraction of water from the aquifer for farming purposes began after WWII due to improved farming methods and farm equipment. About 27% of the irrigated farmland in the U.S. lies over the aquifer. Currently the farmland above the aquifer produces about 1/5 of the beef, corn and wheat consumed in the U.S., but the water is depleting faster than nature can replenish it according to an ongoing 60 year study.

In some parts of western Kansas wells have totally dried up! Between the years 2000 and 2008, 25% of the Ogallala Aquifer has depleted from levels of the early 1800’s. Once depleted the aquifer will take over 6,000 years to replenish naturally from rainfall. A 2013 study forecasted that the High Plains Aquifer, which the Ogallala makes up the greatest portion, would be 69% depleted by 2060.The Ogallala is recharged by rainwater but only about 1 inch of precipitation actually reaches the aquifer annually. Recharge of the aquifer ranges from 0.024 inches per year in Texas and New Mexico to 6 inches per year in parts of Kansas, but hundreds of thousands of years of rainfall will be needed to replenish it back to its levels of the early 1800’s.

Ogallala aquifer

U.S. Aquifers are being depleted.

A Depleted Aquifer will Affect Food Supply

In an article written by Laura Parker,” What Happens to the Midwest When the Water’s Gone?” she states “If they don’t reduce pumping and the aquifer is drained, food markets will be profoundly affected around the world. In the coming decades this slow-speed crisis will unfold just as the world needs to increase food production by 60 percent, according to the United Nations, to feed more than nine billion people by mid-century.”

Solutions to a Depleted Aquifer

Solutions? Farmers can either conserve water and extend the life of the aquifer or choose to deplete it. Farmers can dig deeper wells if they run out of water, but the cost has to be determined because eventually deeper and deeper wells could cost more than the income from the crops.

The North Plains Groundwater Conservation District in Texas has introduced a new project to conserve water. Participating farmers grow corn with just over half of the water they would normally require to irrigate the fields using pivot sprinklers rather than the water consuming drip system and they plant crops farther apart to help conserve water. Many farmers are choosing the dryland farming method which uses crops that are drought-resistant and conserve moisture without irrigation. Such crops include sunflowers and winter wheat, but these crops produce less income than crops from irrigated farming, so pressure is on many farmers to keep pumping.

The Ogallala Aquifer and Water Rights

What is happening to the Ogallala Aquifer is also happening to aquifers in Africa, Asia and the Mideast. Again, just as the population of our earth is exploding, our aquifers are becoming contaminated and depleted, taking thousands of years to refill. We need to conserve our groundwater to sustain food production for an increasing population. In Kansas and Nebraska, groundwater belongs to the public. Water rights are granted to property owners by the state, which assign a certain amount that can be legally used—-but what’s available on paper often exceeds what’s left in the ground! Farmers often feel the water is legally theirs to use until it’s gone!

Laura Parker says, “Hope lies in technology; farmers show me iPhone apps that track water use so precisely that as little as a tenth of an inch can be applied to their crops. In Colby, Kansas, Lon Frahm, who farms 30,000 acres of wheat and corn, irrigates with two billion gallons of water yearly. He counts among his farmhands an IT technician who collects data to keep his yields ahead of his declining wells.”

Wind Farms Replace Crops

In the past several years many farmers have retired from crop farming, leasing their land to wind energy. Outside Friona, Texas, northwest of Lubbock, Wesley Barnett leases wind rights on his land to an energy company. The going rate runs about $10,000 a year per turbine.  Barnett says he can’t water his land anymore so for some people, wind is a lifeline.