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State takes steps to prolong water in Ogallala Aquifer

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Kansas

It's going to take more research and time, but Kansas water experts say the state is making good progress toward prolonging the aquifer that supplies water to much of the state's western half.

In what they touted as a "good-news" report, several water officials told participants at the Water and the Future of Kansas Conference on March 11 in Manhattan that groundwater management districts have begun the first step of grouping regions in western Kansas that have similar aquifer characteristics.

Officials say those 'subunits' of land are the key to the future of water use in western Kansas, a region where farmers grow an estimated 3 million acres of crops yearly, and use about one-half million gallons of water per acre from the Ogallala Aquifer.

Simply put, in areas where there is a rapid decline of water from the Ogallala, officials may enact more aggressive management strategies--possibly even pulling back a farmer's water rights.

That's a good enough reason to be proactive now, says Marios Sophocleous, a hydrogeologist with the Kansas Geological Survey.

"Sooner or later," he said, "the pumping rate (from a water well) will have to adjust according to the availability of water in the Ogallala."

The water demand, though, is only one of about 40 variables that water officials could use to help them group aquifer subunits in the Ogallala region. Others include the saturated thickness of soil, depth to water, recharge rates, potential socio-economic impact of the decline, and the estimated time before an area must make a transition to less water use due to declining water levels.

"The aquifer subunits could vary anywhere from one township (a legal designation of land in Kansas, covering about 36 square miles) to maybe a hundred townships," said Susan Stover, a geologist with the Kansas Water Office. "In practice, a single township would not be a practical management size. The final sizes (of subunits) will be based on the aquifer's physical characteristics and practical management sizes."

Though it reaches parts of eight states, the Ogallala Aquifer is a smaller region within the High Plains Aquifer, which stretches further east into Kansas to the Equus Beds north of Wichita. It's said that the water in the Ogallala is so vast that if spread out over the United States, it could cover the entire country with one and one-half feet of water.

But the resource is dwindling quickly. Research since the 1940s indicates that the aquifer's water level declined nearly 10 feet a year, leaving some areas of western Kansas nearly depleted. In 2001, the Kansas Geological Survey completed a study that estimated the remaining lifetime of the aquifer at 100 years in some areas, but as little as 25 years in others.

Sophocleous noted the reason the aquifer is drying up is because the Ogallala has a very low recharge capacity--in fact, the lowest in the High Plains aquifer. As a comparison, Stover noted that the Equus Beds recharge is approximately 4-5 inches per year (partly because of that area's more porous soils), but the recharge in the Ogallala often is just a fraction of one inch per year.

Most aquifers--the Ogallala included--form natural barriers, such as layers of clay soil. Stover said natural barriers may help people think of aquifers less as a "bathtub" (where a drain on one end directly affects the other end) and more as an egg carton (each "egg" sitting somewhat independently in a subunit).

The aquifer subunits will give water officials a better idea about which areas are at risk of running out of water sooner rather than later. According to the state's current water plan (written yearly by the Kansas Water Office), farmers and other citizens will help form management policy in high-risk subunits.

The Kansas groundwater management districts (GMD) directly involved with dividing units of land in the Ogallala region are located primarily in the north, central and south sections of western Kansas. In addition to identifying subunits, their task includes prioritizing areas where the aquifer is in decline or suspected decline; and supporting programs to extend and conserve the life of the aquifer, particularly in high priority areas. Most of this work is expected to be completed by 2005.

"I'm pretty amazed at how simple this is from a technical standpoint," said Wayne Bossert, manager of GMD 4 in northwest Kansas, where officials have preliminarily defined seven subunits.

Stover outlined the basic steps--which Bossert said his group is following closely--in establishing future water-use policies for areas in Kansas:

--Group subunits with similar aquifer characteristics;

--Verify data, as needed;

--Prioritize subunits (high, medium or low priority);

--Hold public meetings in areas of high priority subunits;

--Develop water use goals;

--Implement new management strategies.

The Kansas Geological Survey has developed a computer database in which GMD officials can enter data by which they'd like to prioritize subunits, and the software program will assist in the process. The annual Water and the Future of Kansas Conference is sponsored by K-State Research and Extension; the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment; Kansas Water Resources Research Institute; and the U.S. Geological Survey.

More information on water issues in Kansas, including numerous links to issues specific to the Ogallala and High Plains aquifer regions, is available on the web, at www.hiplain.org/.

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Sidebar:

Conference attendees hear others' drought measures

Kansas

Water leaders in Georgia and Texas may have given Kansans a glimpse of what's to come during the Water and the Future of Kansas conference in Manhattan March 11.

The State of Georgia recently passed the Flint River Drought Protection Act, which provides money to farmers who voluntarily choose not to irrigate during severe drought years.

In the Texas Panhandle, officials are testing water management strategies in five counties that are at risk because of declining water supplies from the Ogallala Aquifer.

Both approaches seem to be ways in which Kansas is moving.

The 2002 farm bill provides about $3 million to help Kansans with ground and surface water conservation programs in the High Plains Aquifer region. The money is available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Also, U.S. Senate Bill 212, introduced during this legislative session, requests additional funds to conduct a full hydrogeologic characterization of the High Plains Aquifer. And Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas is considering a bill that would provide federal assistance to farmers who switch from irrigation to dryland farming.


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