KEARNEY COUNTY, Kan. (KSNW) — The newest drought monitor shows three-fourths of Kansas is now in a drought emergency.
The Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) says current drought conditions are on par with what the state saw between 2011-2012, and this could mean significant decreases for parts of the Ogallala Aquifer, the biggest groundwater source for Southwest Kansas.
Between 2011-2012, the average rate of decline for the aquifer was 2-3 feet. In parts of certain counties, that number was between 10-15 feet.
While we won’t know the full extent of how much the aquifer was depleted until January (that’s when the Kansas Geological Survey will conduct an analysis of 1,400 water wells across the High Plains/Ogallala Region), one water data manager says this year has already proven much more severe for water levels given wells the KGS continuously monitors.
“There’s been a lot of good discussions about maybe can we bring up water in from the outside and artificially recharge our aquifer like we see in areas around Wichita,” KGS Water Data Manager Brownie Wilson said. “Can we do that more on the Ogallala side? And that’s a lot of good discussions. The big question is, where is that water going to come from?”
With the majority of the state in the red, some Kansas farmers are now facing calls (while others are asking) for increased water conservation.
“The western third of Kansas depends on the Ogallala Aquifer,” Bill Simshauser, Southwest Kansas Representative for the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts, said.
Simshauser, a Kearney County wheat farmer, says if stronger water conservation efforts are not put into place and the rate of water consumption remains the same, 70 percent of the Ogallala Aquifer will be depleted within the next 40-45 years.
“There’s areas in southwest Finney County and southeast Kearney County that already have decreased to the point that there’s no water available for irrigation,” Simshauser said.
“About three inches per year is being recharged towards the aquifer…but it’s important to remember that the amount of water that’s being withdrawn from the aquifer is significantly more,” Matt Smith, Conservation Delivery Manager with the Playa Lakes Joint Venture, said.
Note: Playa Lakes Joint Venture further clarified the recharging of the aquifer through playas with this statement on Friday:
Playas are a primary source of groundwater recharge, contributing up to 95 percent of water flowing to the aquifer. Recharge rates in playas are 10 to 1,000 times higher than under other areas. The average rate across the region is about three inches per year — that’s three inches of water the size of the playa moving toward the aquifer each year.
Playas are round, shallow depressions found at the lowest point of a watershed. Their basins, which are lined with clay soil, collect and hold water from rainfall and runoff, creating temporary wetlands. The water then seeps into the soil and slowly moves toward the aquifer or evaporates.
With the aquifer depleting, the Kansas Geological Survey says area farmers could be forced to rethink their short-term and long-term plans.
“Usually what happens is people don’t necessarily hit zero—they start leveling off of what their wells are capable of producing, and at that time, they have to make changes either in the size of their fields that they’re irrigating, or the type of crops that they’re growing,” Wilson said.
Simshauser says his local economy is built around irrigated crops, and if a regional shift towards more dryland crop production occurs, Kansas’ economy as a whole could be impacted.
“Jobs are affected, elevators are affected, our small towns are affected, business are affected, the equipment dealers, all that is affected by the use of the water from the Ogallala Aquifer,” Simshauser said. “As the water dries up, so do communities.”