Progress on lowering the Ogallala’s depletion rate

At Groundwater Management District 1 and Kansas-based GMD 4, serving all or part of 10 counties in the state’s northwest corner, the development of Local Enhanced Management Areas are showing some promise, where producers set water use restrictions and stick to them. GMD 4 also has a district wide LEMA.

The Wichita County LEMA and Wichita County Water Conservation Area, are both showing promise, said Katie Durham, manager of Scott City, Kansas-based Groundwater Management District No. 1. The water conservation area that started in 2017 logged reductions of 25% of historical pumping and drawdowns have improved from a half-foot to one-tenth of a foot per year, she said.

The Wichita County LEMA and Four County LEMA collectively cover 1.1 million acres, including 150,000 irrigated acres.

Both districts are dedicated to conserve, Durham said.

“The producers are incredibly proactive to do whatever they can to stretch the use of the water and prolong the life of the aquifer. Keeping local control in the hands of landowners and local communities is imperative,” she said. “A lot of people have poured a lot of effort into getting these LEMAs where they’re at.”

The first LEMA, dubbed Sheridan 6 in western Sheridan and east Thomas counties in GMD4, has been heralded for its water savings since 2012, but the January measurements showed a return to a heavy reduction “like the old times,” said Brownie Wilson, water data manager for the Kansas Geological Survey.

“They probably used a fair amount of water,” he said. “This drought was hard on everybody, even those trying to save.”

LEMAs are not yet part of the recipe in GMD3, which covers all or part of 12 southwest Kansas counties.

The district’s research and development committee is focused on developing an enhanced “hydrologic model” that includes deeper pockets of water where producers are drilling down 600 feet into the lower High Plains Aquifer, said Mark Rude, district executive director.

“We’ve got deeper formations that don’t exist everywhere else. We’re drier in a couple spots of the Ogallala, but there are pockets in the High Plains Aquifer,” he said. “We’ve got to shift gears with a better model so we can get the best information for the best decisions on how to manage that supply.”

Economic “modelings” is another tool.

“We are comparing water use goals to goals for our communities and economy, rather than the old way of using more water to make more grain,” Rude said. “We want optimal productivity with minimal water depletion.”

While training a heavy focus on conservation, GMD3 is a strong proponent of technology, using government help as well.

“We want to reduce our demands and develop voluntary compensation tools to help producers have options that make sense for their operations and water conservation goals,” he said.

Programs in current federal farm policy include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program offering technical and financial help for land, field crops, specialty crops, livestock and non-industrial private forest land, according to, also help for transitioning to farming practices with less water use.

Both endeavors are “way underfunded,” Rude said.

Producers need help to handle changes right now, he said.

“We are pumping the aquifer severely right now, because (moisture) isn’t coming from the sky,” Rude said.

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That also impactgs dairy and animal agriculture, which is an economic cornerstone in western Kansas.

Rude touched on the suggestion some eight years ago that an aqueduct be built to pump excess water from the Missouri River and other sources uphill to western Kansas. The Wall Street Journal revisited the controversial concept in its March 23 edition, reporting a “high-end” cost estimate of $20 billion.

But that’s just one concept to consider, said the GMD3 leader.

“So far, we haven’t found a business model for that. We’re looking for partners outside of Kansas that may have higher value uses and urgent water needs,” he said. “Getting some water with the help of other partners sharing the supply is far better than no supply at all.”

Water concerns aren’t confined to Kansas.

Chris Grotegut, a veterinarian from Hereford, Texas, has been waging the same war in a dry sizzling climate. Also a member of an 11,000-acre family farm and ranch operation, he tries to curb water use to conserve the resource.

For example, he said, during a year with only a few inches of rain, he focuses on keeping his cattle fed, not raising crops.

“If we reduce pumping and move toward grass-based agriculture, our wells will stabilize and ag production can persist, as well as the local economy,” Grotegut said. “If you match the amount of (water) you use with what you recharge, you can do it forever.”

Keeping it simple, he told audiences at the recent Soil Health U & Trade Show, that when there isn’t enough water, the focus is on providing feed for cattle.

“In a 3-inch (rainfall) year, we’re not necessarily planting,” Grotegut said.

At other times, he said, “we’re no-tilling winter wheat into a warm season grass mix. We always adapt. It’s pasture cropping.”

He works against the “Texas model of planned depletion,” and instead sees hope in refilling the Ogallala Aquifer. The farm produces grain sorghum (milo), soybeans, and wheat. Grotegut never totally rules out corn when the time is right. There is also room in the cow-calf operation for sheep production.

He said there have been years when the saturated thickness of underground water supplies have grown.

Maintaining it is vital, Grotegut said, but “technology alone will not totally solve the problem.”

Irrigation and farming practices must also be part of the recipe.

He joined in the soil health movement “by pure accident,” and is now a proponent who advocates “keeping cover on the ground with living plants at all times, thus increasing infiltration with roots in the system, minimizing soil disturbance and integrating livestock.”

A highly necessary ingredient is still water.

“There is a lot of concern over the Ogallala Aquifer and how we’re going to have a water table left,” Grotegut said. “It’s impossible to survive without it.”

Neighbors are worrying, he said.

“There is fear and greed, all of the above. It’s not good what’s happening,” Grotegut said. “But it’s totally fixable. It’s just going to take a behavior change. In the long term, farms and towns are going to have to work together to solve the water problem.”

Tim Unruh can be reached at [email protected].