Editorial: Aquifer addiction

The alarm once again has been sounded about the long-term impact of depleting the Ogallala Aquifer in order to irrigate crops in western Kansas.

September 4, 2013


Add this to the stack of news articles and editorials that have been written about the depletion rate of the Ogallala Aquifer. (Or siltation at the state’s reservoirs, for that matter.) Nevertheless, it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed, even though history says it will be ignored again this time.

Yet another study, this one released recently by Kansas State University, reiterates what has been reported for years: More water is being mined from the precious resource than is being recharged and, without dramatic changes, the aquifer will be virtually running on empty in a matter of decades.

The aquifer, a vast underground water supply that stretches from Texas to South Dakota, is being relentlessly pumped to irrigate crops in the high plains of western Kansas.

Landowners there have become more addicted to corn and cattle than any crackhead is to meth, and the corn-and-cattle habit depends upon the aquifer for its fuel. At this point, after so many years, it may be understandable, although it’s worse than simply lamentable. And that’s compounded because the situation continues to be ignored.

Irrigation efficiency may serve only to extend the economic viability of pumping, despite any minor mitigation by groundwater management districts and other political entities. It’s sad that there’s no proven 12-step program to wean landowners from this habit.

Perhaps the situation is an invitation for another “experiment” by Gov. Sam Brownback, himself a former Kansas secretary of agriculture. It would, however, require more than the voodoo of economist Arthur Laffer or the experience and “accomplishments” of the revolving door of his administration’s department heads to tackle this issue.

In the meantime, the study’s obvious conclusion is that pumping less would extend the aquifer’s life. An 80 percent reduction in pumping, however, might translate into a reduction of nearly 500,000 head of cattle. That’s not just tons of hamburger; it’s a truckload of dollars for the fragile economy west of U.S. Highway 81.

More than corn and cattle are at stake, though. The report warns that water wells will be affected also.

K-State civil engineer David Steward, who led the study, said, “We aren’t telling people what to do, but we are telling family farmers who want to hand down their farms to the next generation what steps they might take to make it possible.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t the first time the alarm has been given. Predictably, it won’t be the last time, either. It’s simply too easy to put off dealing with the situation and keep those irrigation pumps running.


Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

The real problem is that most people have a time horizon beyond which they do not worry about anything. Of course, that time horizon varies a great deal from person to person. And, the fact that the Ogallala Aquifer will be depleted and the High Plains will become an unproductive desert is an event that is beyond the time horizon that matters to most people. So, nothing that is effective will be done. That's reality.

Brock Masters 4 years, 8 months ago

The right to pump water has become an entitlement and like all entitlements is difficult if not impossible to end.

We have a state water engineer that is supposed to manage the atate's water, yes, the atate's water, not the irrigators water, but he is pretty ineffective.

Irrigation is big business and those that irrigate are politically powerful. Don't expect change. Expect the aquifer to be pumped dry.

JohnBrown 4 years, 8 months ago

Water is a highly mobile natural resource. All appropriations of water are subject to control by the state of Kansas under the authority established in the Kansas Water Appropriation Act as amended April 6, 1995. In this Act, KSA 82a-702 states: “All water within the state of Kansas is hereby dedicated to the use of the people of the state, subject to the control and regulation of the state in the manner herein prescribed.” The lone exception for using water without an appropriation or permit is water used for domestic purposes. --WATER INVENTORY OF DOUGLAS COUNTY, KANSAS: SOURCES, RIGHTS, SUPPLIERS and WATER DEMAND PROJECTIONS by Larry Kipp, 2001.

Let's not blame the farmers. They ASKED the state for permission to use water and got it. The problem rests with those politicians setting the policies that require the civil servants to dole out the water rights.

But even if Kansas politicians all of a sudden started believing scientists, the aquifer would still become depleted because none of the politicians in our neighboring states believe in science either.

One way for the aquifer to truly become a 'commens' would be for the federal government to declare it a national resource and begin regulating it.

There are three benefits to this: first the water resource can become truly regulated, second, Kansas politicians don't have to be seen believing is science, and third, the Tea Party will have something new to complain about.

This is a win-win-win.


Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

"Water is a highly mobile natural resource."

That statement is very true, and it certainly applies to the Ogallala Aquifer. A very big problem is that depletion anywhere will simply be made up for by water flowing from other parts of the aquifer, although the flow is at a rather slow rate.

So, unless South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas all also change their state laws concerning the use of the water from the Ogallala Aquifer, the eventual result will be the same anyway. And, getting all of the 8 states involved to make a massive change in their state laws will be nearly impossible. The special interest groups will fight it tooth and nail.

One example of a state that will prove to be very difficult to change the law in is Texas. The following excerpts are clipped from:

"Generally, Texas groundwater belongs to the landowner. Groundwater is governed by the rule of capture, which grants landowners the right to capture the water beneath their property. The landowners do not own the water but have a right only to pump and capture whatever water is available, regardless of the effects of that pumping on neighboring wells."

"Water found below the earth's surface in the crevices of soil and rocks is called percolating water, or more commonly groundwater. Texas groundwater law is judge-made law, derived from the English common law rule of "absolute ownership." Groundwater belongs to the owners of the land above it and may be used or sold as private property. Texas courts have adopted, and the legislature has not modified, the common law rule that a landowner has a right to take for use or sale all the water that he can capture from below his land.

Because of the seemingly absolute nature of this right, Texas water law has often been called the "law of the biggest pump." Texas courts have consistently ruled that a landowner has a right to pump all the water that he can from beneath his land regardless of the effect on wells of adjacent owners."

"The practical effect of Texas groundwater law is that one landowner can dry up an adjoining landowner's well and the landowner with the dry well is without a legal remedy. Texas courts have refused to adopt the American rule of "reasonable use" with respect to groundwater."
-end clips-

Texas is just one example of the 8 states that would have to change their laws to preserve the Ogallala Aquifer. This is a matter that falls well within the jurisdiction of the states, the Federal Government is not going to become involved without an act of Congress. But, that is certainly possible, as you have suggested.

I'm from far northwestern Kansas, that is, the tri state area of Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska which is referred to as the High Plains. It seems strange to me that over 20 years after this first became an issue in western Kansas, this matter is finally getting the attention that it deserves.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

I was involved in the family farm work in western Kansas starting in the 1960s at the age of 12. It was in the middle to late 1960s that pumping began to be done from the aquifer on any kind of scale, and in the 1970s it began to be done at a massive rate as equipment to lift massive amounts of water and much larger irrigation systems became available.

The first farmers that invested in the technology reaped massive profits, because corn and alfalfa were suddenly crops that could be profitably raised almost anywhere in western Kansas for the first time.

It was only a very few years later that a problem became obvious. Maybe every 3 or 4 years or so, it became necessary to drill the wells deeper. And with deeper wells came increased energy costs to pump the water up. All of this became very expensive after several years, and then the enterprise was no longer as profitable as it was in the 1970s, when many farmers spent all their profits as though there was no tomorrow, and went bankrupt.

Today, pumping is still done from the aquifer in Cheyenne county and nearby, but at a more conservative level. But, all that really means is that the end of the Ogallala Aquifer is approaching at a slower rate.

Richard Heckler 4 years, 8 months ago

So why is Lawrence, Kansas and Douglas County building a pump house in SE Lawrence presumably to supply new construction projects? This is reckless indeed.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

The water that Lawrence is going to pump would be only a drop in the bucket. That is, if Lawrence was going to pump from the Ogallala Aquifer in the first place. If you do just a bit of research, you will learn that Lawrence is over 100 miles away from the very edge of the Ogallala Aquifer.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

Clipped from Wiki, but the claims are sourced so they should be accurate: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogallala_Aquifer

"The USGS estimated that total water storage was about 2,925,000,000 acre feet * in 2005. This is a decline of about 253,000,000 acre feet, or 9%, since substantial ground-water irrigation development began in the 1950s."

"It would take hundreds to thousands of years of rainfall to replace the groundwater in the depleted aquifer."
-end clips-

  • One acre foot of water is the amount required to cover one acre with one foot of water. That's the way people involved in agriculture express a quantity of water, because the amount of water required to raise a crop is measured in inches and feet per year. And, rainfall (and irrigation) is always measured in inches over an area, never in gallons.
    One acre foot = 325,851.429 gallons.

Those numbers look incomprehensibly large, but the amount being pumped yearly is also incomprehensibly large. But that 9% can easily be understood, and that's a statistic from 8 years ago!

Shelley Bock 4 years, 8 months ago

Would it be safe to say that these are estimates of acre feet of water are not equally distributed such that there is an "underground lake" sitting underneath the Western Kansas farmland? Rather, aren't there pools or concentrations of subsurface water that may enrich the farmers in one county and forsake those in another?

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

Deep underground geology is very complex. You are correct in that the available water, that is, the water table, varies a great deal from place to place. But not as far as from one county to another. Within Cheyenne county, the northwestern county of Kansas, in the homesteading days, water could be drilled in only some locations due to the variation in depth of the water table.

That was a serious problem in the 1880s. There was unclaimed land available for homesteading that no one wanted because the drilling equipment that was then available could not reach the water table. Later, there was a new type of drill invented that could drill much deeper, and then that land was homesteaded. That was prior to 1900, I believe.

I can give a very strange example from some drilling that took place in my father's pasture in the very early 1960s. It was a mystery at the time. The drilling company was not drilling for water, but for oil, and underground geology at that time was not understood anything like it is today. Today, explosive charges are set, and the reflections of the sound waves are measured for several miles, and exactly what is underground can be accurately determined. But that technology did not exist in the very early 1960s.

I am sorry, but I cannot give even accurate guesses as to the depths that this took place at, but it was in the thousands of feet:

Drilling commenced normally for a few thousand feet, and then water was reached. But only water, no bedrock anymore, and the drill bit was lowered perhaps hundreds of feet through the large cavity filled with water. Then groundrock was encountered again, and drilling was resumed. Then another underground cavity was reached - and all the water in the first cavity drained into it!

The drill bit was lowered even farther, but no water and no groundrock could be reached anymore because of the limits of the drilling equipment. But, that was using early 1960s technology. So, since there was no oil available to be extracted, the drilling company retracted the drill, and left. They were quite puzzled at the time, but from what I've been told since then, caverns very deep underground are not that uncommon in the High Plains. But that was not common knowledge in the early 1960s.

But you know what's really strange? Only about 10 or 15 miles west of that location, there are producing oil wells!

Of course in Florida and some other locations, there are very dangerous underground caverns very near the surface that lead to sudden and massive sinkholes that have resulted in massive damage and some fatalities. But here in Kansas, they are far underground and pose no danger.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

I had never heard of a sinkhole in Kansas! I think they're quite rare, unlike in Florida. Can you find 2 more examples?

I notice from the photograph that the sinkhole illustrated does not have the sheer cliff like face and incredible depth of the ones that occur in Florida. Obviously, that sinkhole is not nearly as dangerous as the ones there that suddenly cave in, such as this one:

Keith 4 years, 8 months ago

Sorry, I didn't realize it was a contest. A simple Google search will show more images of the same hole, some with very steep sides. It's rare enough to be a tourist attraction, for foolish tourists who think it can't suddenly enlarge or deepen. Here's some historical data. http://www.kgs.ku.edu/Publications/Bulletins/162/10_app_d.html

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

I read through that link, and yes, you are correct, sinkholes have certainly opened up in Kansas. But they seem to be quite rare and they have all been far from the tri state area where I'm from, and so correctly I should have said "Where I am from, they are far underground and pose no danger."

Sharon Springs is far enough south that I've never been there.

The dramatic photograph of the sinkhole in Florida that I posted was deleted, possibly due to copyright violations. It graphically illustrated the differences between it and the sinkhole photographed in Kansas near Sharon Springs.

Shelley Bock 4 years, 8 months ago

Thanks for the explanation. I hadn't realized that these were caverns of water. The explanation is appreciated.

tomatogrower 4 years, 8 months ago

I've been reading the Worst Hard Time, the Read Across Lawrence, book. They didn't listen then, except to the "experts" who told them that plowing the land would bring a change to the climate and make it rain more. Now there is proof that the water will run out, but, hey, it will be the next generations problem, right? They need to find something to grow that needs less water. Corn just needs lots.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

For a very long time, in the 1870s - 1880s, it was believed that planting trees would make it rain more. That's why one of the requirements for homesteading your 80 acres was that you plant trees. Another requirement was that you build a house of some type, and live there. And then, after a period of time, you would own the land. That's what many of my ancestors did, we homesteaded in Cheyenne county in 1880 or so after leaving Russia. Of course, that was after the United States Army had driven all the Native Americans away.

But, planting trees did not make it rain more. And plowing the land indiscriminately (that's a big subject) brought about the dust bowl years of the 1930s.

Even now, in some locations there are a lot of trees in western Kansas, but with the prolonged drought since the 1980s, almost all of them have died.

As far as finding something to grow that needs less water, that problem has been solved. In about 6 out of 7 years, you can grow a decent wheat crop without irrigation in Cheyenne county. Rye also does well, but the market for that crop is so far away that after transportation costs, not much profit is left. My father, who never irrigated, made the mistake of planting some rye one year and the crop was fantastic. But the elevator would pay hardly anything for it, because it would need to be shipped an incredible distance to any buyer. So that was a one time deal!

The profit on an irrigated crop is much higher, and that's why farmers irrigate. People will do what they can get away with, and it's a fact that if you don't use the fossil water, someone else will anyway.

The only hope of saving the Ogallala Aquifer is Federal action, as JohnBrown suggested. A good first step would be to end the subsidies for ethanol, which is partly made from corn. Since so much corn is used to produce Federally mandated ethanol, the price of the crop has become very high. The idea was to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but I think that Federal subsidies for domestically produced natural gas and NG powered vehicles would be a much better idea.

Lawrence Morgan 4 years, 8 months ago

This is a very impressive discussion, from which I've learned a great deal!

Thanks to everyone who has and will participate. I'm very knowledgeable on many areas, but not water, so it's very helpful to have these comments.

I just wonder why this article and its comments aren't reproduced elsewhere in newspapers, not just in Lawrence. There should be comments from throughout the state, and from other states, as well.

This is the kind of discussion that really benefits the reader, and gives light as to what possibilities there really are on the internet, and in journalism!

Chris Golledge 4 years, 8 months ago

I'm thinking that the replenishment rate is so low that the Ogallala might as well be considered a finite resource, and any substantial use will deplete it in time. Using the resource yields higher profits that not using the resource. The question then becomes, do you want a lot of profit over a short term, or less profit over a longer term.

I think there has to be some regulation that results in additional cost to using more water than the next guy; otherwise, it is simply a race to get yours before the other guy does. A higher cost structure would create more of an incentive to using it more efficiently. Flood irrigation should become less cost effective under this model.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

Your first statement is entirely correct, the Ogallala Aquifer is fossil water.

Clips from Wiki:
"The deposition of aquifer material dates back 2 to 6 million years."

"Present-day recharge of the aquifer with fresh water occurs at an exceedingly slow rate, suggesting that much of the water in its pore spaces is paleowater, dating back to the most recent ice age and probably earlier."

Addressing your last statement: This might sound like a fine point to most, but to anyone that has worked in agriculture it certainly is not: Flood irrigation is a technical term, and it is rarely, if ever, used in High Plains outdoor agriculture because it is so wasteful of the water, and it also dissolves and carries away the nutrients required, mostly nitrogen which is water soluble. Instead, sprinkling is usually used, almost universally with a center pivot sprinkler. But the pivot sprinklers sold today are not the same as the ones sold as recently as the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of shooting the water up and all around, there are hanging pipes with small sprinklers on the bottom. Then, not nearly as much water is lost to evaporation. But, because the systems are so expensive (about $100,000 in the 1980s), some of the older ones are still in use.

Years ago, into the 1960s, pipes were commonly used with openings that could be turned on and off that drained into channels that had been plowed into the field, but since they are so labor intensive to use, they are rarely, if ever, seen today. Except perhaps in very small farming operations.

There is also a type of irrigation system where there are pipes on large wheels that are rolled across the field, and they have sprinklers to irrigate the crop. But that type of system is very rare today, I haven't seen one in operation in years. But I'm sure there are some running somewhere. Those are also very labor intensive.

Flood irrigation means the area is completely flooded with water to irrigate, and then after a time the water is drained. It is most commonly used with hydroponics, and the water is used to carry nutrients to the plants.

The most efficient way to irrigate with today's technology is with a drip irrigation system, but in a field of any size it is not at all practical.

The cutting edge technology in water saving irrigation is to saturate a wick with water that is below the ground, beside the roots of the plant. Then almost no water is wasted, and the only loss of it is due to transpiration. But as far as I know, that method is not in use anywhere at the present time, but the experimentation with it that is being done seems to show a great deal of promise for the future.

Chris Golledge 4 years, 8 months ago

OK, I agree on almost all points, but I did see flood irrigation being used in a few fields around Larned last year, and the locals were admiring how well his fields looked compared to everything around them. In any case, the point was that there is generally a tradeoff between up-front cost of an irrigation system and it's level of efficiency; more expensive water would inhibit the less efficient methods.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

What you said is very true. But, Larned is in the central part of the state, and receives a great deal more rainfall than Cheyenne county does. In Cheyenne county, water is a very precious resource, and so you were very spot on when you mentioned "more expensive water". And the tradeoff between the efficiency of an irrigation system and its cost that you mentioned, yes indeed, that is so very true also.

Cheyenne county receives so little rainfall that if you don't irrigate, you just about have to summer fallow, that is, every other year you do nothing but plow to kill the weeds which draw moisture from the ground. The rule of thumb is that by doing so, you can save one inch of rainfall out of every ten inches that fall during the season. But that one tenth increase in the moisture available for your wheat crop makes the difference between success and a mediocre crop, or worse, one that is not even worth the cost of harvesting. So you only get a wheat crop every other year.

I have spent countless hours and two or three decades of summers driving a tractor pulling a plow through an empty field. The only purpose of doing it was to kill the weeds. It's necessary to do it 4 to 6 times over a summer, depending on the rainfall. Sunup to sundown, it took 3 days to do it. And that was with a fast tractor and a big plow. First I'd do the very small 80 acre field, and I was done with that one by noon.

Needless to say, I have all those fields memorized.

Nikonman 4 years, 8 months ago

Hepburn, there are maps available that show where the aquifer is located underground, but I'm not sure how accurate they are. And it's not always just small areas. Hays and Russell are two towns that can't get to the aquifer. They depend on the wells located next to the Smokey Hill River and are currently getting their water from Cedar Bluff Lake. Russell and Hays have been close to getting into a water war over the situation. There are plans in the works for Hays to pump water from a ranch in Edwards county all the way to Hays in the future but the cost is enormous. I would say that they need to go back to dry land farming now, no matter what the loss of yields may be. If the droughts continue, Lawrence will be affected. Get a map and note where all the water in the Kansas river comes from. Except for some out of Nebraska, it all comes from rivers in western Kansas.

Chris Golledge 4 years, 8 months ago

All our current grain crops are annuals. This means that a lot of energy and resources are used by the plant to grow root and stem every year. There is interesting work being done do develop a perennial grain, and those plants would use less water and be able to develop very deep root structure. They would be more like the grasses that used to grow there. The downside would be that anyone growing them would not be able to respond to market shifts quickly, or take advantage of new cultivars on any given year. But, maybe that is the future of farming in the dry land.

In_God_we_trust 4 years, 8 months ago

Since growing corn takes a lot of water from the aquifer, perhaps we should rethink the intelligence of ethanol plants that use corn, so that there is no longer such a market for corn to be grown for ethanol (which drives up the price of corn because of ethanol demand). Having water is more important than ethanol. Western Kansas can still grow beef for customers by feeding them grass, and just finish off, if needed, with grain before market. New technology that now exists, which will require those that preach "science", to open their eyes to new technology, can help replace the need for ethanol fuel which puts a demand on aquifer resources. This new technology can also help Kansas be a leader in developing a new modern manufacturing base to vastly broaden industry in Kansas, and diversify beyond agriculture.

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