The Ogallala Aquifer: A View from Kansas

This Circle of Blue article assesses the damage caused by this year’s drought on the agricultural heritage of Kansas. How important is Kansas as a bellwether for drought impact?

“Kansas is a key agricultural state — it is among the top 10 states to produce corn, soybeans, hay, summer potatoes, and cattle; it ranks second in the nation for wheat production; it is number one for sorghum grain — in a nation that is a major food exporter.”

How important is the Ogallala Aquifer to the health and longevity of the future of Kansas to continue as a key agricultural state?

“Whereas eastern Kansas has streams but little groundwater, the other half of the state relies on aquifers. For a time, groundwater was a natural insurance policy — if the rains failed or the rivers ran dry, plenty of water is located under foot. Not so anymore in Kansas, where groundwater and surface water are managed jointly.

Irrigated agriculture in western Kansas — and by extension, much of the region’s economy — owes its existence to the Ogallala. But the aquifer is also rapidly shrinking, because it is slow to recharge in the dry High Plains and because demand for the water is high, mostly for large-scale agriculture.”

The drought that has plagued the United States for most of 2012 has pushed traditional water rights to their limit. The state of Kansas has embarked on a new system of water rights management.

“The water rights system in Kansas comes from nearly seven decades of laws passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor, starting with the Water Appropriation Act of 1945, which created a water rights framework that has been modified to fit new circumstances. This [water rights/usage] is an issue that has been with us in Kansas for the last 30 to 40 years,” said Rex Buchanan, the interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey…Now, it has become all that more pressing.”

Water rights/usage issues are becoming stressed to their  limits all around the world. In previous posts, I have talked about riparian water rights. These apply to properties adjacent to a body of water having the right to make reasonable use of it. The ambiguous question is always related to”reasonable use”.

Kansas has gotten serious about old water rules that are becoming more obsolete as climate conditions begin to change the dynamic relationship between rainfall and groundwater. The old principle of “use it or lose” is now accepted as a poor conservation tactic.

With the exception of the Guarani Aquifer in South America and Nubian Aquifer in North Africa/Middle East, the global aquifer system is under assault around the world.

The article: Ruinous Drought Tests Kansas Model for Supplying Water to Farms provides an interesting framework for drought and water challenges expected to be a growing part of our planet’s future.

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