Data indicates that water levels up at Equus Beds aquifer, other sites, but Ogallala still ails

Feb 19, 2017

Credit Kansas Geological Survey

Thanks to timely rains last year, Mount Hope-area farmer Jeff Winter figures on some of his fields he pumped half the amount of water that he normally uses to irrigate his crops.

So did many central Kansas farmers. And it showed. 

While the Ogallala Aquifer continues to decline, the Equus Beds and Great Bend Prairie aquifers saw rises as irrigators shut down their wells more often in 2016.

"We didn't have to pump as much, and we shut off more frequently," said Winter, who also is on the Equus Beds board. He added that on a few fields, he pumped even less.

The Kansas Geological Survey released the preliminary data this week showing the annual falls and rises of the state's aquifers. Each year in early January, the KGS and the Kansas Department of Agriculture's Division of Water Resources measure water levels in about 1,400 water wells in western and central Kansas. The data collected is used to monitor the health of the High Plains Aquifer, the state’s most valuable groundwater resource.

Big Bend Groundwater Management District No. 5 - which includes Stafford, Pratt and parts of surrounding counties - rose 0.58 of a foot. The Equus Beds increased an average 2.10 feet.

But in western Kansas the long-term picture remains the same: The Ogallala Aquifer continues to shrink - just as it has for the past seven or eight decades.

“Overall, the declines in western Kansas were around their historical average, but moving east we saw significant rises in the water table," said Brownie Wilson, the survey's water-data manager.

Aquifer rising

Tim Boese, manager of the Equus Beds, said his district staff also measured about 650 wells - some of them in the same locations of the state. Their data shows similar numbers, with the average rises in wells around two and three feet.

"We have some rises that exceed eight feet in some areas," he said.

The increase comes after a multiyear drought that brought the water table down in 2011 and 2012. Boese said there have been rises in the past, particularly in 2007 and 2008. This year was more widespread. Even problem areas - such as an area near the Reno County town of Pretty Prairie and another in McPherson County - saw modest increases. 

"It's extremely encouraging to see," Boese said. "We had a tremendously wet year and saw less pumping because of that."

The Equus Beds Aquifer is a major source of water for Wichita, Hutchinson and surrounding towns. 

Big Bend GMD 5 also saw rises - a district reliant on the Great Bend Prairie Aquifer. The average groundwater level there rose 0.58 feet after falling 0.25 feet in 2015. Since 1996, annual levels there have increased eight times and dropped 13 times, according to the KGS.

Wilson said both Equus and Big Bend are managed using a safe-yield approach with a goal to balance water appropriations with recharge. Also, the water table in central Kansas is closer and the region gets more precipitation, helping recharge. That isn't necessarily the case in western Kansas.

Ogallala dry-up

Yet, despite rainfall, the urgency of the situation isn’t lessening for western Kansas, where irrigators and others pump water out of the ground faster than precipitation can recharge it. Groundwater levels in southwest Kansas, where the Ogallala Aquifer is the richest, have fallen an average 40 feet since 1996, when the KGS took over monitoring the wells. Some areas have had more significant declines.

In the past 10 years alone, the southwestern aquifer has dropped an average 23 feet, Wilson said.

Declines in Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3 this year weren't as big as past years. Irrigators were able to shut off wells some, Wilson said. However, the district still had the biggest declines of the state - dropping an average 1.09 feet compared to 1.04 feet in 2015.

Some of the bigger drops were in the sandhills south of the Arkansas River and a stretch between Liberal and Hugoton, Wilson said. There were some areas, however, including in Ford County along the river, that came up. 

GMD 1, which makes up west-central Kansas counties, saw a drop of 0.68 feet after seeing virtually no decline the year before. Northwest Kansas GMD 4 saw water levels fall an average 0.58 feet.

Currently, most of western Kansas is listed in a moderate to severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. During drought periods, pumping demands from the aquifer increase, causing declines to worsen, said Wilson.

Conditions could change by the time the irrigation season begins later this spring.

Sheridan 6 sees drop

But efforts are still underway to preserve and extend the life of the Ogallala. Despite a drop in the water table this year, farmers in a parcel in northwest Kansas are seeing results of cutting back their irrigation allotment.

The farmers are part of the Sheridan 6 Local Enhanced Management Area - a 99-mile section of Sheridan County and one township of Thomas County.

Here, farmers voluntarily came together to come up with a plan of cutbacks. Rather than do nothing and mine the aquifer, they agreed to reduce their water use over five years by an average 20 percent, fearing that if they don’t, they might be the final generation to grow crops on this parcel of the High Plains.

However, the plan does have teeth and is enforced by the Division of Water Resources' chief engineer.

Wilson said the area saw a 1.5-foot drop this year, probably because the area didn't receive as many timely rainfalls. However, previous years the table has risen while wells outside the LEMA have typically declined. Last year, the KGS recorded nearly a foot increase during the annual water-well survey.

It shows even a small area can make a difference.

"They are down this year, but the last three years they beat the county averages, which is abnormal," said Wilson of the area's success. 

Mitchell Baalman, a Sheridan 6 farmer who serves on the GMD 4 board, said earlier this month the board approved renewing the LEMA, which otherwise would have ended after this year. 

"I'd say - farmers inside this - they are more cognizant and realize you can do a lot more with less water," he said. "You had to put a line in the sand and make yourselves change."

Those in the LEMA get 55 inches a year of irrigation water, which is an average 11 inches a year. However, for the first three years of the LEMA, they pumped well below the targeted average, including an average 8.4 inches in 2015.

The program's flexibility, however, allows a farmer to be able to pump a little more in a dryer year, said Wilson.

"We didn't have as much timely rains during the growing season," Baalman said. "But we still had great crops, and when it did rain, we shut the wells down."

Baalman said he thought irrigators could carry over a small portion of their overall water savings to the renewed LEMA.

Meanwhile, the board is considering the possibility of a district-wide LEMA. There is no timeline on when a vote could happen, but Baalman said there would need to be time to educate water users.

"I think it will come about. I'm hopeful, anyway," said Baalman.