Farmer-to-Farmer meeting focuses on the Ogallala Aquifer


Thursday, April 13, Brownie Wilson shared a presentation with 60 area farmers and industry professionals, highlighting the latest research on the current state of the Ogallala Aquifer and steps that can be taken to extend the life of the water locally. 

Wilson, a technician for at the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas, is member of a team that travels western Kansas each year measuring the water level in approximately 1,400 monitored wells each winter.

Carrying 500-foot long steel measuring tapes that are coated in blue chalk before they are extended down the well casings, technicians check the wells in the non-pumping season annually, determining how the water levels have changed from one year to the next.  

Generally, the depth to water in western Kansas is continuing to increase.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do in a few years,” Wilson said, “the tapes only go down to 500 feet.” 

Water levels have declined significantly since 1996, with declines ranging from 20-30 feet to over 100 feet in certain areas. The totals vary widely across the various regions of the aquifer. 

Another set of wells, known as observation wells, dot western Kansas, too, providing electronic hourly feedback on the water levels. 

Utilizing this data and more, the Kansas Geological Survey produces information that helps policy makers, farmers, and the public make sense of the complex puzzle that is Kansas water.

The western half of the state is mostly reliant on groundwater, while the eastern side almost exclusively depends on surface water for its needs. 

There are variations in the sources of water, the supply available, the saturated thickness of aquifer where it exists. Average rainfall across the state varies from less than 18 inches annually in southwest Kansas to more than 45 inches in the southeastern corner of the state. 

For these reasons and many more, Wilson reminded those attending that “There is no one size fits all, even within state water law.” 

While continued water decline is frequently stated as an unavoidable future, the Kansas Geological Survey’s research indicates that a reduction in the use of groundwater could help sustain and extend the life of the aquifer. 

From the index wells spread throughout the region, research indicates that water levels recover some during the non-pumping season. 

A recent study developed average numbers to highlight the percentage of reduction needed across the various Groundwater Management Districts. The resulting number is an average of the amount of reduction of use of ground water needed to help the aquifer recharge. 

“The map is informative in a big picture sense,” said Wilson, “but can be a little misleading for some areas when shown without context. The prime aquifer area in GMD1 in Wallace County reduction number is over 50%. The same is especially true for SW Kansas- they have many areas where the reduction percentages is well above 22%, but the shallow wells in and along the Ark River Valley tend to skew things at the GMD scale.” 

Work is being done in several communities to help address water usage

 to slow the decline and work towards manageable levels of groundwater use, including the development of Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs) and Water Conservation Areas. These programs are designed by local producers to deliver local results, which is critical to their success. 

“Groundwater moves very slowly – taking roughly 20 to 30 years to move a mile, on the fast side. It’s not going to flow out from under people, at least within their lifetime,” said Wilson. “It will be there for years to come unless it is pumped out locally. The benefits of any voluntary conservation efforts will also stay local.” 

An active LEMA in Wichita County has demonstrated that markedly less water is being used as a result of local policies, which were instituted in 2017 through a water conservation area. 

A new LEMA was recently approved for Greeley, Wallace, Lane, and Scott Counties, which retroactively took effect on January 1, 2023. 

Groundwater Management District 1 manager Katie Durham says “We’ve been encouraged by the what we have seen with the Wichita County LEMA. The annual rate of decline has fallen from one half a foot annually to one tenth of a foot after the reduction in use.”

Wilson and the Kansas Geological Survey have run a number of analyses on the Wichita County numbers, each confirming that the reduction in use is making a difference in the aquifer.

 “The data is pretty remarkable,” said Durham. “There has been a change in mindset and a change in use. We are tangibly saving water in Wichita County.  We’re hopeful that the four-county LEMA will see some progress in extending the life of the aquifer and protecting our local economies, which is our number one goal.” 

Groundwater  Management District 1, includes the counties of Greeley, Lane, Scott, Wallace, and Wichita.  Durham said their office is currently focused on outreach and will be in each of the communities this week to help further explain the LEMA to area producers. 

At Thursday’s meeting, Wilson also presented information regarding groundwater mineralization on the in the Upper Arkansas River Corridor, noting the high salinity as well as areas of sulfate and uranium concentration in certain areas in Kearny and Finney counties. 

The catered lunch meeting, hosted by the Greeley, Hamilton, and Wichita County Conservation Districts, was held at the Greeley County 4-H Building in Tribune. 


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