CSU-led team investigates water depletion in Ogallala Aquifer region

Megan Fischer

A large area of underground water spanning through much of the western United States and that supports a large amount of the U.S.’s agriculture is in danger.

A CSU-led team consisting of 11 institutions is studying the Ogallala Aquifer to find practices and institutional changes that can prolong the life of the aquifer. The project is USDA-NIFA funded and the project started in mid-March of 2016.

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Map from SOURCE
(Map from SOURCE.)

“The Ogallala Aquifer is one of several aquifers in the world we are worried about,” said Meagan Schipanski, project lead and assistant professor of soil and crop sciences. “We hope our work can provide a model for others.”

According to Schipanski, the aquifer spans through Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota and is not a consistent depth across the states it covers, so water policies differ from one region to the next.

“The Ogallala Aquifer provides the water for them (farms) to produce goods and is diminishing quickly,” said Chris Goemans, associate professor in agricultural and resource economics. “We’ve talked to producers who are concerned if their operations are going to be viable even in five years.”

Goemans said some producers they’ve connected with are not currently being affected by the diminishing rate of the aquifer, but others are already seeing negative changes in their operations.

The Ogallala Aquifer is a massive reserve that has been replenished with water over millions of years, according to the director of the Colorado Water Institute and chair of the CSU Water Center, Reagan Waskom. He said that not only is the water a depleting source, but it is also being accelerated by climate change.

“Over a couple of generations, we are depleting these aquifers,” Waskom said. “When you’re looking at a quarter of U.S. irrigation, you’re talking about our food security.”

The agricultural community that uses the aquifer consists of family farms that have been in operation for generations, according to Waskom.

“Our responsibility, our ethic, is to make sure that future generations have as much to enjoy as we do,” said James Pritchett, executive associate dean for the College of Agricultural Sciences.

According to Pritchett, the project involves many different disciplines including scientists, engineers, economists, computer scientists and even farmers from the affected communities. The 11 institutions, which include Kansas State University, Oklahoma State University, New Mexico State University and Texas A&M Agrilife, among others, will be working closely with communities to find sustainable policies for the future.

“They (the other institutions) have local context, so they understand what agricultural needs are in those areas,” Pritchett said. “The scientific community is embracing climate change beyond just the discussion of if it exists or not, but now what do we do about it?”

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According to Schipanski, the project’s current goals are to expand hydrologic models in the areas reliant on the aquifer and to inform on policy for short-term and long-term optimization of the shared water resource.

“Some regions have already seen a decline in water availability,” Schipanski said. “There are not a lot of economic incentives to change current practices.”

Collegian Reporter Megan Fischer can be reached at news@collegian.com or via Twitter @MegFischer04.