When southwest Kansas farmer Kent Dunn looks to the horizon, he sees golden fields of wheat, now being harvested. He also sees what might lie in store for his grandchildren, who will be fifth-generation farmers, as the Ogallala Aquifer groundwaters disappear.

“We have done so many things to be more efficient in irrigation, but we are still using lots of water, and the aquifer is still a declining, dwindling resource, says Dunn, 56. Still, he  believes efforts to conserve the aquifer will allow it to survive for his grandchildren, despite U. S. Geological Service estimates that the Ogallala will be gone in 50 to 100 years.

Besides wheat, there are also fields of corn (Dunn’s major crop), sorghum, cotton, and soybeans, along with range for cattle on Dunn’s farm. All of the crops require irrigation.

The vast Ogallala Aquifer, stretching underneath eight states from South Dakota to Texas, recharges at a rate of one inch per year, according to Kevin Wagner, deputy director of engagement at the Texas Waters Resources Institute of Texas A & M University.

In other areas, recharge estimates vary. For example, the Kansas Geological Survey has found that in northwest Kansas, the recharge for the Ogallala is much more than originally thought, and much greater than one inch a year.

On the central to southern High Plains, though, there have been “significant water level declines, according to Brown.

And the irrigation of crops in those areas is extracting much more water at a faster pace than the rate of replenishment for the Ogallala, which extends over 174,000 surface square miles.

Water for Crops, Cows

Dunn knows the yearly extraction rate for each crop grown: 18 inches for corn, 10 inches to 12 inches for sorghum, and 6 inches to 8 inches for cotton. But row-crop farmers aren’t the only ones drawing on the Ogallala. Big dairy farms, which also use a lot of water, have moved to Kansas and Texas in recent years.

Some parts of the Ogallala have already gone dry.  Can it be saved? “There are no silver bullets. There is not one thing,” Wagner says. The aquifer would take thousands of years to replenish, and its usage is tied to the global marketplace for crops.  “The worldwide competition and commodity prices are a major factor in farming today,” he says.

Technology has helped, though. It was not until the 1990s that Kansas farmers even knew how much water they were pumping out of the huge reservoir for irrigation, according to Dunn. Now each well pump has a meter, and there are limits on how much water each well can use (2 acre feet).  “It has forced us to be more efficient,” he says. 

Dunn is hopeful that a new variety of cotton will allow him to grow more cotton and reap as much economic benefit as corn, while using less water.

Tough Choices

Others have faced difficult decisions. The situation with the Ogallala has forced some farmers to shut down wells that are no longer producing, he noted. And it has sparked interest in water’s value as a liquid commodity. “Some people are saying water will be more valuable than oil and gas,” Dunn says. “A lot of wars were fought over water.”

The dwindling aquifer has hit the southwest region of Kansas especially hard, according to Mark Rude, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Management District in Garden City, Kansas. “We have less than 200,000 acre-feet of annual recharging, and more than two million acre feet pumped from the aquifer annually,” Rude says. That means only 9% is replaced annually, he noted.

“It is not sustainable to hold the status quo,” he adds. “We can conserve and extend supply, but at some point, we can’t keep doing what we’re doing.”  Some farm wells have run dry and in Finney County, Kansas, 33,000 acres that used to be irrigated are now dryland, he observed.

According to a 2013 study by the Kansas Department of Agriculture, every irrigated acre that converts to dryland carries a loss of $4,000.

Yet even as the Great Plains water crisis looms, there has been little conversation about mandatory reductions of water usage, according to Rude, who adds that many farms and agribusinesses have absentee owners.

And some new technologies to conserve water have a Catch-22, Rude says. For example, center pivot irrigation increases efficiency, but also allows irrigation of more types of land, which can result in increased water use.

“The writing is on the wall. Continued concern for the future is present,” Rude says.  “But to fix your hydrology, you have to tear apart your economy. People aren’t willing to do that.”