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NIFA Impacts: Saving the Ogallala Aquifer, Supporting Farmers

Posted by James P. Dobrowolski, PhD, National Program Leader, Division of Environmental Systems, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), U.S. Department of Agriculture in Research and Science
May 01, 2020
Mobile drip irrigation
Working to help conserve the Ogallala Aquifer, Kansas State University’s mobile drip system is retrofitted to existing center pivot irrigation systems, monitored and managed by mobile phone. Irrigating wheat in western Kansas with mobile drip saves 30-60% compared to conventional sprinkler irrigation. Photo by K-State Research and Extension

The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the world’s largest fresh groundwater resources. It underlies 175,000 square miles in eight states. Starting as hundreds of feet of silt, clay, and gravel eroded from the Rocky Mountains and laid down by streams millions of years ago, rainfall during this time produced an underground lake the size of Lake Huron.

By the 1930s, unsustainable farming practices and recurring drought turned most of the Ogallala Aquifer states into the Dust Bowl. Massive dust storms caused farmers to lose their livelihoods and their homes. By the early to mid-20th century, irrigation and farming technologies had advanced to help convert these midwestern states to farms that today support 30 percent of all U.S. crop and livestock production.

Water pumped for irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer is the principal driver of the region’s mostly agricultural-based economy (market value $35 billion) Unfortunately, intensive irrigated agriculture is draining the aquifer much faster than rainfall can replenish it. Fortunately, a new simulation modeling study, conducted by the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agricultural Project and funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, may help farmers conserve Ogallala’s groundwater.

This study may improve the amount of irrigated wheat grown and promote proper fertilizer application using mathematical models and carefully collected data. Winter wheat, a critical crop grown for global consumption, is being studied under different irrigation and fertilizer amounts. Results show that farmers may be able to use half the amount of water that they usually need to effectively irrigate their wheat crops. Using less water can help save the Ogallala Aquifer.

At the current rate of use, part of the Ogallala could be exhausted within this century and may take 6,000 years to restore. It is important to develop agricultural innovations to area farmers sustain agricultural production in that region. This research supports Ogallala-region farmers, policy makers, and land and water managers’ work to reduce the risk of excess loss of Ogallala water resources.

Category/Topic: Research and Science