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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
Jul 29, 2021
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

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Robert J. Helmick
May 01, 2020

I am very familiar with the problems facing the Ogallala aquifer. I worked on a similar project with Dr. Jack Shaffer , Dr. Prakasam Tata, and Dr.Mike Unger known as the Hammond Water Reuse project, which re used captured Sanitary effluent as an irrigation and fertilizer medium for row crops and open spaces within the Lake Michigan Watershed. I have seen the numbers re; the decline in the Ogallala aquifer and recovery seems difficult. Hopefully methods such as stated above can have a marked impact on reversing the downward spiral.

Gabriel Elliot Wane Smith
Oct 19, 2021

save the Ogallala

Danny L Reichenborn
Mar 16, 2022

It is not the growing of wheat that has created the largest part of the problem of aquifer depletion. It IS the growing of corn AND corn fed cattle. We KNOW that grass fed beef consumption is actually better for humans but we love our well marbled choice and prime beef. Growing corn is what is causing the depletion of the aquifer. Corn is a moisture glutten. Many years, in the mid west there is adequate rain to grow wheat...and if not, it would take little supplemental moisture to produce a successful wheat crop. Growing corn to fatten the many millions of feedlot cattle, in the mid west, is producing the depletion and death of one of the worlds largest fresh water aquifers...period!

Wayne Guest
Mar 26, 2022

Depletion of the Ogallala aquifer seems to be a critical issue. As we watch ocean levels rise, can a series of dikes around the lowest areas of our coastlines, desalination plants and pipelines be constructed and used to replenish the Ogallala ? If we can build pipelines to move oil and gas why not water.