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Can the Ogallala Aquifer be Saved? LEMAs May Help

This patch of ground in Logan County represents a typical western Kansas wheatfield.  When rainfall is scarce, irrigation is used to grow wheat, corn and other crops in western Kansas. (Photo by J. Schafer)

Water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer have been in decline for decades.  Hidden beneath western Kansas and seven other states, this vast reservoir is an important resource for agriculture and industry.  But since World War II, irrigators have been pumping water out of the Ogallala faster than it can be replenished.  Commentator Rex Buchanan tells us about some of the efforts underway to preserve the aquifer... before the wells all run dry.


Commentator Rex Buchanan is director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas.  For more than 20 years, he's also helped measure water levels in the Ogallala.  He lives in Lawrence.

(TRANSCRIPT)

For years, people have treated declines in the Ogallala aquifer about the way they treat the weather: they talk about it, but they don’t do much.  Out in northwestern Kansas, though, that’s changing.

In 2012, landowners in one part of northwestern Kansas, mostly in Sheridan County, decided to cut the amount of water they pumped.  Their guiding philosophy was simple.  Continue down the path they were on, and the Ogallala there would be largely depleted in a few decades.  Cut back, and they might extend the life of the aquifer, giving their children a chance to stay on the farm.
They settled on an average annual reduction of 20% each year for five years.   The area involved was about 100 square miles.  In the parlance of the water community, which loves acronyms, this experiment was called a Local Enhanced Management Area.  Or LEMA.

This was a big deal, the first large-scale experiment in water-use reduction in the state.  Everybody in the water world was watching.  

Five years later, the results are promising.  Even though irrigators used less water, their profits were about the same. By changing crops, timing irrigation better, and catching five years that didn’t include a bad drought, irrigators used less water and still made money.  Just as important, they didn’t sue each other over water.

What’s more, the results showed up underground.  Water levels in the LEMA had been declining as much as two feet per year.  Now they were only dropping by about four inches.  And measurements in January of 2018 showed a slight rise in water levels in places.

This approach may be spreading.  The northwestern Kansas groundwater management district, which includes Sheridan County, is instituting a similar LEMA over much of the district’s 10 county area. This new LEMA will cover around 3 million acres, compared to 63,000 acres in Sheridan County.  The new LEMA calls for smaller reductions than in Sheridan County, and it may face legal challenges.

In central Kansas, locals are considering a LEMA that might make more water available for the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.  Quivira has old, very senior rights to water from streams, but for years it hasn’t been receiving all the water it’s due because groundwater pumping starved those creeks of their water.  A meaningful LEMA there might help solve the problem.

For decades, declines in the Ogallala have seemed intractable.  Though the jury is still out, LEMAs might be one solution.  Based on work by the Kansas Geological Survey, even small reductions, like 20%, can have a big impact.  One or two LEMAs in small areas might not make a huge difference, but lots of them, spread out across western Kansas, could extend the life of the aquifer.

For a long time, I’ve heard irrigators say that they wanted to pump water but they also wanted their children to have the same lifestyle they did.  For a long time, it looked you could have one of those things, but not both.  With approaches like LEMAs, maybe they can have it both ways.  

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