Groundwater Users and the Future of the Ogallala

Short version – there are a lot of claims on the water under the plains, and a lot of ideas for what to do in the future. Some are more realistic than others.

Ted Turner – the Atlanta media and baseball team dude – talked about returning the High Plains (western area over the Ogallala Aquifer) to quasi-Ice Age status by seeding it with elephants, lions, and other African fauna sort of, kinda, like the Pleistocene megafauna. We will skip over the lack of ground water-fed springs and streams, the totally different precipitation patterns as compared to the last Ice Age, and a few other minor details. Let’s just say that his idea died the death it deserved. At least for now.

Another proposal, this from two professors at Rutgers, looked back to some of the New Deal programs and involved removing domestic livestock and crops from the region. Instead, a “Buffalo Commons” would allow bison to roam as they once had, and tourism and bison management would support the economy of the region, minus a lot of the current human residents. Again, the lack of surface water leaped to mind as a problem, along with the human tendency to dig in and hold when someone from Outside says, “I have a great idea. Let’s you leave and then we can . . .” There’s some value to some of the Poppers’ proposals, but also some big problems.

The Ogallala still has water. Some parts of the aquifer are getting thicker and gaining water. On average, among all the states on the Ogallala, 85% of the water taken out each year is used for irrigated agriculture. A good rule of thumb for an average year in southern Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, and Texas is that one and a quarter acre-feet of water are needed per year per acre of water. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, more or less. This will cover one acre of land in one foot of water. The Oklahoma Panhandle, per the USDA (Ag department) has 230,000 acres of irrigated crop land. Those crops require, on average 290,000 a/f/y. Three-quarters of that is wheat and field corn, with another fifteen percent or so grain sorghum. In a wet year, irrigators use less. Dry year, more water, unless it is so bad that there’s no point in irrigating any longer. I’ve seen that. Even with super-efficient center-pivot systems, the blast-furnace wind evaporates the water before it touches the plants’ leaves, let alone the ground. You watch plants die before your eyes. Kiss lawns good-bye. Those years are rare, thanks be.

Flood-furrow irrigation uses the most water per acre in an average year, because it is less efficient.* It also requires a lot more attention by the farmer, and a lot fewer acres can be sloped the proper way for good flood-furrow watering. Water flows through pipes with holes in them, and flows out of the holes, down the furrows, and into a ditch or “tailwater” pit where it soaks into the ground. Each length of pipe runs for X time, and then the farmer turns off the water, moves the pipe by hand, and starts again. There’s a pretty high evaporative loss.

Center-pivot systems can be much more efficient if the newer technology is used. These are the giant sprinkler systems with nozzles that hang down below a central pipe on legs. The pipe rolls along, around and around a circle, and water sprays out. The ground doesn’t have to be as level. One farmer used 222 a/f/y on 245 acres in Kansas. When he switched to center pivot, that dropped to 155 a/f/y. You still lose water to evaporation, especially if it is windy or the nozzles are set too high in the air. A different Kanasas farmer switched from flood to sub-surface drip irrigation and went from between 10″ – 15″ of water per year to between three and a half and five inches per year. That’s a lot of water.

In some places, like western Kansas and parts of Texas, the depth to water has grown so deep that the cost of pumping it exceeds the value of the crops produced. Those acres are taken out of production for irrigated grain and turned into dry-land grain, or pasture. Yes, it uses far less water. You are also less likely to get a large grain crop, and the farms are larger, so fewer people live in the area. Small towns fade away along with the irrigated acreage. What is good for the individual is not always so good for the community.

However, irrigation tech and how people use the water are both far more efficient than they were twenty years ago. Better breeds of grain and other crops use less water, or are more salt tolerant, or both, so irrigation takes less water. Almost all the groundwater districts in all the states focus on best use for the water, and really encourage people to be as careful as possible. Ninety percent of farmers and ranchers are mindful of their water use, and try not to overdo it. Water is expensive! Fuel for pumps costs a lot, whether you use diesel or natural gas. Yes, there are people who don’t give a fig and pump as much as they can, devil take the hindmost. The water management districts have teeth (outside of Texas), and will take steps when legally possible to rein in the abuse.

Fifty years ago the Ogallala only had fifty years left at most. Today, well, it is still producing water. Water conservation is normal. Urban areas that depend on the aquifer try to encourage water conservation, although . . . It’s about as successful in some places as you’d fear. That’s one of my high-horses, so I will try to stay on the ground. Turf grass that’s not bred for your area, cities that demand lots of green and non-xeriscape plants around commercial properties, places that require close-clipped lawns (which use a lot more water in summer), swimming pools that are not covered when not in use, so evaporation goes on 24/7, all these things steal a lot more water than people think.

If people are careful, the aquifer still has a lot of life in it. If we are stupid, well, we can kiss the region’s economy bye-bye, and with it a bunch of food crops, and fiber as well.

*In some places, when done properly, flood-furrow is more efficient than center-pivot in terms of water use. A lot depends on the farmer, the humidity in the area, and what is being grown.


This paper goes into some detail about efficiencies.

This is a contrarian view, arguing that federal policies are killing the aquifer and doom awaits. It is possible, true.

Just basic info, from Oklahoma State University.

13 thoughts on “Groundwater Users and the Future of the Ogallala

  1. Wanders off, slightly bewildered by the current reading assignment for AgEng 420. This began as a writer’s blog, now it’s a grad seminar … 🙂

      • Sorry! But I was really interested in why we (outside of the region) never hear about the Ogallala any more.

        Side note on technology: subsurface drip irrigation (buried leaky plastic tubes or “tapes”) is often the most efficient, in terms of water used per pound of harvest. But it used to be prohibitively expensive, because they had to replace the tapes each spring (this year’s plows chopped up last year’s tapes). GPS-guided tractors can now put the furrows in exactly the same spots (within an inch or so) year after year. This can have its own drawbacks, but it means the drip tapes last several years, making them much more affordable and saving water in the long run.

        (A really smart environmental charity would buy GPS units for tractors in the Midwest, rather than wasting money on lawsuits. Sigh.)

        • I think because it is managed so well that no one wants to try to use it as a Horrible Warning anymore. And it’s not a visible cause, unlike “plastic killing turtles” or “celibate polar bears” or “this storm caused by Anthropogenic Climate Change!!!!!!!!!!” (Plus, I suspect, activists are thinking, “It’s just farmers, ranchers, and Those Lesser Sorts. Who cares if they run out of water and blow away?”)

      • It’s a complex and fascinating problem – the kind which look “shiny!”; suddenly I’m deep into another topic I hadn’t realized would interest me.

        I went the buried tube route for my garden, which is about 300 sq ft at this point. We get sufficient dry days, and periodic annual drought, that I cleaned and re-dug it deeper this spring (6 hrs dig and re-lay, 36 hrs pain). In dry weeks, I could water for maybe 60 minutes every 4-5 days (about 1/2″ rain eq), and place water in or below the root zone. In wet weeks, it helped to drain some excess water out to the squash patch/gathering spot. I got stronger plants, much better yields. Even East, it’s better not to waste water you could use for something else.

  2. *stands up and applauds*

    I really, really hate the tendency to punish normal use of water– growing food, washing clothes– while allowing OR REQUIRING acres of grass that is not suited to the area.

    It would be a perfect project for your local ag extension– “how can we use the least water while getting the benefits that plants bring? Native shade trees, what kind of plants are pretty and don’t die when we skip watering for a week….?

    Even just rain water management can help, El Paso had very nice flood control … well, artificial lakes, honestly. Made it safer during the rains, but I could also see how it would allow more water to go into the ground than into the air.

    • No, no! They burn!

      More seriously, I live on the other side of the Rockies, in a fire ecosystem. The native plants are well adapted to this, including needing to burn to get their seeds to grow. Burn they do, with enthusiasm.

      Having junipers too close to structures will void your insurance in our area, now.

  3. In S. M. Stirling’s Conquistador, this extremely rich man who control a gateway to a parallel world without European settlers decided to “seed” this parallel world with his “favorite” African animals.

    Of course, that extremely rich man had “the scriptwriters (Stirling) on his side”. 😆

  4. Why don’t we dismantle the universities, and return the endowments to the states, and to the heirs of the original donors?

    *Segue to wild hand waving about ‘societal benefits’*

    I won’t say that there are no experts, but a lot of the self-proclaimed experts anointed by the powerful are not expert.

    And I am considerably salty about some things.

  5. It’s ALWAYS about the water. The improvements in the irrigation procedures from when I was a kid are amazing, and that has put MANY more acres into production compared to the 1960s. The other side of that is the a/f/y requirements tend to rise, along with the increases in population and urban/rural water use. From a bath a week to one/two baths/day, plus washing machines, watering lawns.

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