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High Plains Aquifer in Danger of Running Out Amidst Extreme Drought

Farmers are more efficient in their use of water from the High Plains Aquifer in Kansas, but the resource is threatened by too much use and not enough water to recharge it.

It is a potential threat to the United States economy as Kansas Congressional District 1 has the highest total market value of agriculture products in the nation, a civil engineering professor at Kansas State University said.

The High Plains Aquifer, also known as the Ogallala Aquifer, is underneath parts of Kansas and seven other states, and covers about 174,000 square miles.

Some of the questions asked during a recent study of the aquifer were: "How long will the water last and how long would it take to recharge it?" according to David Steward of Kansas State, the lead author of the study, which was published on Sept. 10 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"There is more water being drawn than natural recharging can replace it. The water is going down. There are significant declines," Steward said.

The aquifer is 30 percent depleted and, under current projections, it will be down another 39 percent in 50 years.

To put it in perspective, it would take between 500 and 1,000 years to completely recharge a depleted aquifer, Steward said.

The top three uses of the aquifer are: irrigation, mainly for corn crops; agricultural feeding operations; and municipal water.

The Kansas State researchers found that there will be significant declines in water pumping rates in the next 15 to 20 years but irrigated agricultural production may increase because of projected increases in water-use efficiencies of corn production.

Farmers use center-pivot irrigation instead of the previous flood irrigation.

"The farmers and the irrigators have adapted to the availability of the aquifer by being more efficient with the use of the water," he said.

Exacerbating the problem is a continuing drought. Most of the western third of Kansas is in severe to extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Extreme drought conditions are also gripping portions of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming.

It is hard to tell whether there could be a Dust Bowl-type scenario in the area of the aquifer if current usage and weather conditions continue. It was something that was not looked at in the Kansas State research.

AccuWeather.com Expert Senior Meteorologist Jim Andrews said the extreme blowing dust of the Dust Bowl era resulted from agricultural practices, which left land exposed much of the year. These practices have been changed since that era.

"Can we have a return to these conditions? We certainly can," Andrews said. "Climate is cyclical and we can get stuck in a rut."

High Plains temperature and precipitation extremes from 1958 to 2010 showed no change, according to a 2012 analysis published in Earth Interactions, a publication of the American Meteorological Society. No trends were found in annual precipitation, extreme precipitation and short-term dry conditions.

The Kansas State research helps prepare the public for the future by educating them about the balance of today's livelihood with long-term needs, Steward said. It also helps to educate the next generation of civil engineers, agronomists and veterinarians in an environment of real-world problems.