Stakeholders gather for first Ogallala Aquifer Summit

The large meeting room in Garden City, Kansas, was filled almost to capacity. The people were gathered to represent various interests across eight states. And despite their differences they had one common goal in mind—the future of the Ogallala Aquifer.

The inaugural Ogallala Aquifer Summit was April 9 and 10. Its goal was to bring together agricultural, municipal, research and industry stakeholders in one room to look at the realities of the aquifer today and create solutions to work toward conserving this vast resource for the future.

The summit was a product of the state of Kansas’s 50-Year Water Vision Plan, created in 2013. It recognized that the Ogallala Aquifer’s future not only directly affects Kansas, but also neighboring states and that any conservation efforts would need to be multi-state.

“People are impacted in all eight states by the aquifer,” explained Kansas Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann in his welcome. “The Ogallala Aquifer is the source of water for one-third of our state, and 44.5 percent of our economy is tied to agriculture. We have 3.5 million irrigated acres in Kansas, and 1.4 million of those are irrigated through the Ogallala Aquifer.” 

Mann said he looks at issues through the eyes of his four children, and the Ogallala’s future is no different.

“Many of us are here because we need to do things today, and we know our children and grandchildren will be impacted by the decisions we make on the Ogallala Aquifer today,” he said.

John Stulp, special counsel to the Governor of Colorado on water, and a former Commissioner of Agriculture of Colorado, farms in eastern Colorado and understands firsthand the importance of the Ogallala Aquifer to agriculture.

“We have 12 million irrigated crop acres over the Ogallala Aquifer,” Stulp said. “About $12 billion of revenue is created out of this asset that we sit on top of here.” 

Robert Mace, associate director and the chief water policy officer at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, laid out the history and the current status of the Ogallala Aquifer for participants.

Large irrigated region

Today, about 43,000-acre feet of water is pumped each day from the Ogallala Aquifer across the High Plains. It accounts for the largest area of irrigated cropland in the world and is 31 percent of the total irrigated land in the U.S., Mace said.

“We have seen more than 150 feet of decline in parts of Texas,” Mace said. While there are some parts that are rising, overall the saturated thickness of the aquifer has declined. In some areas of Texas, that’s more than 50 percent of the aquifer now depleted.

Over the two-day summit, participants shared information about scientific research into the status of the aquifer, the politics of the eight states above the aquifer, and measures that can be taken to extend its life.

For example, Tom Jones, managing member of Hy-Plains Feedyard, LLC, Montezuma, Kansas, explained how his operation is using Residual Feed Intake measurements to evaluate efficient animals in its feedyards.

“The RFI is the amount of feed consumed, net of the animal’s requirements for body weight and production,” Jones explained. “Efficient animals eat less than expected, and have a negative or low RFI, while inefficient animals eat more than expected and have a positive or high RFI.” When a feedlot is using high valued irrigated crops as feed, using measurements like this can save up to $50 per head, reduce daily feed intake by 2 pounds per head per day, or 3 to 4 bushels per head over the whole feeding period.

“That could be up to 400,000 bushels of corn saved,” Jones said. “We will still probably buy as much corn from you as we do today. But that means we can make more pounds of beef with less corn.” And, when marketing to companies who have to be mindful of their carbon footprints, that’s just one more selling point.


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Darren Buck farms on the border between Kansas and Oklahoma, and he is staring at the end of the useful life of the aquifer under his farm ground. To extend the life of his wells to the next generation and beyond, he’s switched to no-till and strip-till farming, which helps him conserve as many drops of 17 inches of annual rainfall as is possible.

“We also have telemetry on our center pivots,” he said. This allows him to be able to stop and change the speed and direction of his pivots. By monitoring his pivots remotely he can catch wasteful situations quicker, thus preserving the water he’s pumping.

“On one of my pivots, I can apply an amount of water comparable to two days water supply for a town of 2,000 people,” Buck said. “One pivot, over 10 hours.”

Additionally Buck practices track management, which sounds simple but can save a lot of water when properly applied in clay loam soils like his.

“We run our pivots routinely 1,500 or more hours a year, and we get tracks,” he said. “At the end of the season, the evapotranspiration need of the corn starts to tail off, so the need for water on the corn goes down. But, if you get a rain shower, you don’t let the pivots stop because they’ll get stuck if you shut them down. And if you need them in a hot and dry snap to help corn fill properly to the end of the season, it could be a problem. That’s why you see pivots running when it’s raining.” Being able to shut down the water and start back up again saves a lot of water.


Summits help, official says

Jim Butler, of the Kansas Geological Survey, brought home the importance of summits like this. The survey has new modeling framework that accounts for the water levels of the aquifer and the water use data from the wells on it to answer the question of how much do we need to reduce pumping on the aquifer to keep it at current levels?

The survey found that on the far western third of Kansas, directly over the bulk of the aquifer, pumping would have to reduce by 27 to 32 percent to keep the aquifer at current levels. 

“If you want to reduce the rate of decline by half, then you take those numbers and divide by two and see that a relatively modest reduction in pumping could have a large impact on the decline rate,” Butler said.

Regulating the aquifer through state statutes and policies can be tricky because each state deals with individual water rights by judicial precedence and politics that go back a 100 years or more. Organizers said that was one major reason it’s critical to have summits like this regularly to get stakeholders actively involved in solving problems and sharing knowledge.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].