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Cutting back to stretch the Ogallala

Reducing the amount of water drawn from the Ogallala Aquifer, though initially cutting corn output by around 15%, could extend the functional lifespan of the vital underground water stockpile by as much as three decades. That would allow technology for crop genetics, irrigation, and machinery to catch up and theoretically make up exponentially more ground in the fight to raise enough crops to feed a growing human race.

Those are a couple of key findings of a group of researchers at Kansas State University who, with the help of grant funding from the National Science Foundation and USDA, have developed an outline for how to start putting into action years of groundwater monitoring data from a network of wells around the High Plains that show the aquifer will reach critically low water levels by 2050. But the slide toward those levels isn't that far off, says Dave Steward, Kansas State University civil engineer and leader of a team of experts from that university charged with identifying ways to extend the aquifer's life for irrigation, agriculture, and ultimately life in the region it sustains from the Texas panhandle to southern South Dakota.

"What happens is as you pump the well, the groundwater goes down, and the ability to extract the water decreases. The well yields become lower," Steward says. "We're pulling out less water now in the wells than we used to individually over the entire region. Roughly in another 15 years, we're going to see regional declines in well extraction rates."

Tasked with preventing that from becoming the norm down the road, Steward worked with specialists in agronomy among others who originally comprised the 2001-founded Consortium for Global Research on Water-Based Economies to uncover how things like technology might help the effort to make the Ogallala last longer than recent outlooks that have it drawing near its bottom in a matter of decades. While there's a major conservation component to the group's findings, it's also important to look at how cuts in water use can better align with technological advancements that, in theory, can continue to bring along higher crop yields without today's water requirements.

"Currently, recharge is supplying about 15% of the pumping rates that are going into the wells. We looked at reducing water use by 20% today; if you reduce current groundwater extraction by 20% today, the agricultural production will decrease to values we saw about 15 years ago," Steward says. "We'd produce about the same amount of irrigated corn and feed about the same number of cattle we did about 15 years ago."

So, a downturn in crop and livestock output is a definite part of the future for High Plains farmers and ranchers if the Ogallala aquifer is to be sustained, at least according to the study spearheaded by Steward. What about the payback?

"The benefit is that by saving that water now, we'll have it for the future. And, instead of having our peak corn production around 2040 to 2050, that would shift to about 2070, and the prospects look a lot brighter beyond 2070," he says. "There's a lot more corn being produced after 2070. We're able to save enough water to be able to enable the crop breeders and people developing the technology to apply the water to develop ways to do it smarter and smarter and smarter, just like we've done in the past.

"If we keep getting better and better, the dropoff is not going to be as fast with some reductions today."


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