As part of a research project looking at the Ogallala Aquifer, researchers will be gathering extensive hydrologic and crop water use data during the next four years, which can be used to eventually manage pumping rates.

A multi-disciplinary consortium of university researchers, led by those associated with the University of Nebraska is taking the lead to address agricultural sustainability using aquifer water.  

“This project recognizes and will build upon a wealth of knowledge and previous aquifer research to build a useable baseline of data on water levels, pumpage dynamics, institutional controls and climatic variability,” Chittaranjan Ray, director of the Nebraska Water Center, said. “This data will be used to develop the best cropping management and irrigation technologies that will help maintain aquifer health into the future, keeping appropriate economic and social issues in mind.”

A comprehensive hydrologic model exists for the Northern High Plains region of the Ogallala, but an aquifer-wide hydrologic model has never been created. An expanded model will provide an important baseline tool to estimate climate change and management impacts on groundwater levels across the region. The research project is part of a $10 million grant for four years of activities being provided by the USDA Water for Agriculture Challenge Area Coordinated Agricultural Project monies.

The kind of intrusion into measuring individual farmer’s water use wasn’t mentioned, but it appears that there will be a lot of individuals roaming the countryside taking readings. The consortium has acknowledged that gathering this data is challenging, but it is relying on Ray’s longstanding connections with other groups from his involvement with the Nebraska Water Center to help in the process.

Besides Ray, additional researchers from the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska and the Nebraska Water Center will play key roles. The multi-disciplinary consortium also includes scientists at Colorado State University, Kansas State University, Oklahoma State University, New Mexico State University, Texas Tech University, West Texas A&M University, Texas A& M AgriLife and the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest freshwater aquifer in the world and has been the main source of agricultural and public water for Nebraska and parts of seven other states for more than 80 years. The Ogallala Aquifer region accounts for 30 percent of total crop and animal production in the United States, and more than 90 percent of the water pumped from the aquifer is used for irrigated agriculture.

The researchers noted that with climate change projections and recent declines of groundwater, the aquifer, along with many of the world’s aquifers, is declining on a path many consider to be unsustainable.

Groundwater levels and management practices vary greatly across the Ogallala Aquifer region. While the aquifer is at a high level in Nebraska, it is more depleted in states to the south. This project seeks to develop a successful model of integration that leads to wide-scale changes in the management of the aquifer and informs other aquifer management groups across the world.

“The Ogallala Aquifer is a vast resource that is vitally important to Nebraska agriculture and to our state’s ag economy, but it is not endless and needs to be used and cared for wisely and sustainably,” said Ray.

“This project recognizes and will build upon a wealth of knowledge and previous aquifer research to build a useable baseline of data on water levels, pumpage dynamics, institutional controls and climatic variability,” Ray said. “This data will be used to develop the best cropping management and irrigation technologies that will help maintain aquifer health into the future, keeping appropriate economic and social issues in mind.”

Part of the grant funds also will be used for sponsorship of programs that will inform non-farm consumers about the role of water in food production. The consortium team has a goal of improved understanding of climate change impacts on water resources and the identification of emerging technologies and management practices that could extend the life of the aquifer.

When the consortium members refer to seeking “to develop a successful model of integration that leads to wide-scale changes in the management of the aquifer,” then farmers naturally start wondering about their water rights and availability for growing crops in the future.

It will be interesting to see what comes from the project at the end of four years.