Thanks to rains, Kansas’ Ogallala declines are smaller, annual survey shows

Technology, state programs, are a tool in the toolbox that is working

Goodland, Kansas, farmer Tim Franklin did something unprecedented as his corn crop began to pollinate in early August 2017.

While some of his neighbors continued to pump water on their cornfields, Franklin shut off his irrigation.

Sometimes the crop isn’t thirsty, Franklin said, admitting that it has been a difficult mindset to change.

“There still was that old gut feeling, that we were pollinating, we need to have our water on,” Franklin said of his own operation, but noted he trusted his soil moisture probe technology and, this past fall, harvested an above average corn crop.

Franklin said he saved about four weeks of irrigating last season thanks to timely rains and the implementation of technology to help him be a more efficient irrigator.

He wasn’t the only one to shut off the center pivots. And, it showed, according to the most recent measurements that record aquifer health.

While the Ogallala Aquifer continues to decline, it did see some improvement as irrigators shut down their wells more often in 2017 due to above normal precipitation patterns during the growing season, according to the Kansas Geological Survey.

Groundwater levels, on average, rose slightly or nearly broke even in western Kansas, said Brownie Wilson, the survey’s water-data manager.

“Overall, in terms of declines, it is probably the best year we’ve seen for a long time,” Wilson said of Kansas’ Ogallala Aquifer.


Decline improvements in western Kansas

The KGS released the preliminary data in mid-February showing the annual falls and rises of the state’s aquifers. Every January, the KGS and the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources measure water levels in about 1,400 wells in western and central Kansas. The data collected is used to monitor the health of the High Plains Aquifer, the state’s most valuable groundwater resource. It includes three individual aquifers—the Ogallala, Equus Beds and Great Bend Prairie.

Among the findings in the Ogallala:

In Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3, average levels dropped just 0.05 feet, the lowest decline since the state began administering the program in 1996. In comparison, the average level fell a total of 23 feet over the previous 10 years.

Northwest Kansas GMD 4 had an average increase of 0.33 feet after falling slightly in all but two years since 1996.

GMD 1 in west-central Kansas experienced a slight drop of 0.19 feet in 2017 following a 0.55-foot decline in 2016. Although decreases there have been less drastic than farther south, annual levels have risen only twice since 1996.

There were still localized areas of declines in southwest Kansas in 2017, including in Haskell and southern Finney County, Wilson said.

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However, water levels were notably higher in Morton County and along and north of the Arkansas River. Another rarity, Wilson said, “The Ark River flowed all the way to Garden City.”

That contrasts with the central part of Kansas, which was drier during the growing season. Some of the state’s bigger declines last year were in the Equus Beds Aquifer, which provides water for cities like Newton, Wichita and Hutchinson.

The Equus Beds had an average decline of 1.93 feet, which followed an increase of about 2.08 feet in 2016, Wilson said. This area is different than western Kansas, though, as it has better recharge from rain events.

Big Bend GMD 5, which includes Stafford and surrounding counties, had an average increase of 0.26 feet following an increase of 0.88 feet in 2016.


Extending the life

Even with better overall measurement results in western Kansas for the year, the aquifer is nearly depleted in places, Wilson said.

The Ogallala—the vast underground reserve that sustains farmers’ crops in an area where rainfall is limited— has been disappearing since irrigation development some 70 years ago.

Groundwater levels in southwest Kansas, where the Ogallala is the richest, have fallen an average 40 feet since 1996 when the KGS took over monitoring the wells. Some areas have had more significant declines.

Former Gov. Sam Brownback, along with state officials and water stakeholders, made water one of the top priorities in the past decade. Five years ago, his staff unveiled a vision plan to extend the state’s water supply, which includes stringent cutbacks and targets.

The vision also calls for the use of tools to help with irrigation efficiency.

In January, the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources held a symposium in Garden City to showcase irrigation technology, said Susan Metzger, the deputy agriculture secretary who leads KDA’s policy evaluation and development related to water and natural resources. More than 200 farmers attended.

While rainfall has helped farmers cut back on pumping, tools like soil moisture probes are part of the story, she said.

Metzger pointed to the Sheridan 6 Local Enhanced Management Area in northwest Kansas where farmers in a 99-square-mile area have changed farming practices and implemented technology to help make mandatory irrigation cutbacks over the past five years. It has resulted in an overall rise in the water table.


It all adds up

Meanwhile, more operators, including Franklin, have implemented their own farm-based management plan to reduce irrigation use and extend the usable life of the Ogallala.

At present, there is about a dozen approved Water Conservation Areas across Kansas, including one in Wichita County that has about 20 separate stakeholders.

Matt Long, a farmer who also has a seed business, was among those who sat at a table with county officials and other water users in spring 2016 to try to resolve the area’s water problem. On his family’s own farm, one of the irrigation circles had fallen so low in capacity it was converted to dryland. Another, which had historically pumped more than 2,000 gallons per minute when it was first drilled, has been holding steady at 500 gpm for several years.

“The whole idea was we need water to live and survive, and we also need water to produce crops and grow livestock,” Long said.

The first full year for the Wichita County WCA was in 2017, Long said. Everyone agreed to the same set of rules, which includes an initial 29 percent cutback over seven years. Irrigators can indefinitely bank unused water allocations.

In previous years, the Long farm used an average 13 inches an acre. Last year, with the rain and use of soil moisture probes to schedule irrigation, the family used just 7.5 inches an acre.

“It’s another tool in the toolbox, another set of data,” Long said of the probes. “Every inch we save is an inch we have in the future. … Yes, it rained, and it has been wet, but just from the use of the data from the soil moisture probes, I could easily save in a drier year moisture at the front or back end of the corn crop.”

Tim and Katherine Franklin returned to Sherman County in 2011 to farm with Tim’s parents, Gerald and Linda. Besides moisture probes, the family has done some experimentation with variable rate irrigation using speed control.

The Franklins also were the first in Kansas to implement a WCA. The farm just completed its second crop season since enrolling in the program in 2016.

Franklin said the farm’s plan limits them to 12 inches of water per acre a year. Last year, the Franklins averaged about 8 inches an acre.

They already see improvements. One of the farm’s wells that had been declining for several years had increased 1.29 feet, according to the January measurement.

“The technology allowed us to save more water last year in a wet year,” Franklin said. “The moisture probes allowed us to have confidence to know we had moisture there and allowed us to shut off.”

Moreover, the fall’s good corn crop helped give him confidence the family made the right decision, he said.

Tim and Katherine’s two children are the fifth generation. Someday, they, too, might return to the farm.

“We think if we can conserve some water now, we can preserve the life of the aquifer for ag and livestock use as well as municipal use,” he said.

“What we are doing might not work for everyone,” Franklin said, but added, “If we can all do a little bit, it adds up.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].