Groundwater levels decline across parts of Kansas

Agriculture

GRAY COUNTY, Kan. (KSNW) –  Each year, the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) and the Division of Water Resources (DWR) measure more than 1,400 wells to track the drops in groundwater levels. 

Throughout 2020, experts recorded an average groundwater decline of nearly one foot across the Kansas portion of the High-Plains Aquifer.

The High Plains Aquifer is one of the world’s largest groundwater resources. It stretches across parts of eight states from South Dakota to Texas and is a significant part in growing billions of dollars of crops each year. The Ogallala portion is the largest in Kansas and perhaps of the most concern.

“We typically see our bigger declines south of the Ark River in the sandhills,” said said Brownie Wilson, KGS Water Data Manager.

The southwest portion of the state or, Groundwater Management District 3, has seen the biggest losses since groundwater levels started dropping around the 1950s.

Groundwater level declines in Groundwater Management District 3, Courtesy: Kansas Department of Agriculture

This past year, that area saw an average loss of just under a foot and a half, but some wells did see up to 10 feet of decline.

The southwest area of the state lies over a portion of the aquifer that saw extreme drought nearly a decade ago. From 2010 to 2014, the Kansas Geological Survey recorded losses on average of three feet per year while some wells saw total losses of close to 30 feet.

Throughout the past nearly 70 years, many wells have gone dry while others have seen declines of close to 250 feet. “The last two to three years, the water levels have been somewhat stable, declined slightly, ” said Wilson. “This year we’ve kinda taken a step back to those conditions that we saw in 2011 and 2012 when we had a really strong drought across much of the state.”

When looking at aquifer declines, Wilson says it’s also important to take into account saturated thickness or simply how much water is there to begin with. Wilson says one factor contributing to losses is the fact that there has been water there to pump.

“In those areas that have a greater supply of water are going to withstand those declines much more readily than those areas that are thinner,” said Wilson.

For many farmers, the aquifer is a vital resource. Garrett Love farms in and around central Gray County. His family has farmed in the area for close to 50 years. Throughout that time, their farm, like many others in the state, has seen water well declines.

“When this area was developed in the 60s and 70s, you know every single well you put in the ground was doing thousands of gallons per minute, and there was a certain idea that was all gonna last forever. Ultimately that’s not the case,” said Garrett Love, Southwest Kansas Farmer.

This past year, he says while some of his wells held steady, others did see drops. He says the ongoing drought has played a role in the area’s losses, now, as well as in the past.

“Wells and sprinklers that maybe were doing 500 hundred gallons a minute or 600 gallons a minute maybe like this one behind me now doing 150 gallons per minute,” Love said. “Bigger wells doing 1,000 or 2,000 gallons per minute, doing 500 or 600 gallons per minute now, so that changes that dynamic.”

The heart of irrigation season is right around the corner and will start ramping up in the coming weeks and months. As that time nears, many in the field of agriculture are working to help limit overuse in watering and prevent further declines.

Many farmers in the state have put acres into federally-funded Conservation Reserve Programs (CRP) to restore the land and water, while others have taken part in better crop management practices, like planting drought-resistant crops. Many also have implemented conservational soil tillage practices and use soil probes to gauge saturation levels.

“More of that information, the more of that data, it’s gonna be better for everyone and also the life of the aquifer,” said Love.

Love says it’s important to make those changes now so that future generations can have a future.

“I love having these kids come out and check the sprinkles and look at the crops and harvest with us, and if that’s what they want to do then be able to do the same,” said Love.

For more information on Kansas’ other Groundwater Management Districts, click here.

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