Ogallala

Water is an in-demand commodity in Del Norte, Colorado.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

In the summer of 2002, water pumps in Colorado’s San Luis Valley stopped working.

The center pivot sprinklers that coax shoots from the dry soil and turn the valley into one of the state’s most productive agricultural regions strained so hard to pull water from an underground aquifer that they created sunken pits around them.

“This one right over here,” says potato farmer Doug Messick as he walks toward a sprinkler in the valley, near the town of Center. He's the farm manager at Spud Grower Farms. “I came up to it one day and I could’ve driven my pickup in that hole.”

Courtesy of the Governor's Office

After decades of alarming headlines, Kansas may be on the verge of preserving an ancient groundwater resource that helped make it an agricultural powerhouse.

Since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, researchers have warned that farmers were pumping water from the part of the massive Ogallala aquifer that underlies Kansas faster than nature could replace it.

But a new emphasis on conservation spearheaded by Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is starting to reverse that longstanding trend.

Andy Marso / Kansas News Service

The Kansas Geological Survey has spent years studying the groundwater levels of the Ogallala Aquifer to determine how long it can continue to support the western Kansas farm economy.

Now the leader of the agency says it’s time to start monitoring the aquifer that the Kansas River produces to see how long it can continue to provide drinking water to the growing population centers in the eastern part of the state.

Dave Ranney / Heartland Health Monitor

As the Kansas Water Congress opens its annual meeting this year, the state’s top water regulator said the sense of urgency for conservation has never been greater.

The state is just now emerging from a multi-year drought that forced irrigators to further deplete an Ogallala aquifer supply already projected to be used up much faster than it regenerates.

Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, said Thursday that in some areas of Kansas, it’s the current generation of farmers — not future generations — that will watch their crops wither for lack of water.

Dave Ranney / Heartland Health Monitor

Securing Kansas’ water supply — once a hot topic of the legislative session — has faded into the background in Topeka amid pounding rains and a grinding budget crisis.

Rep. Tom Sloan, a Republican from Lawrence, led weeks of hearings on water issues earlier in the session as chairman of the House Vision 2020 Committee. But, sitting in his office between largely unproductive recent House floor sessions, Sloan said the concerns raised during those hearings largely have been forgotten.

Eric Durban / Harvest Public Media

Eber Phelps was a member of the Hays City Commission in 1991 when two of the city’s water wells went dry, sucking up nothing but air.

Until then, Hays had little comprehensive plan to save water. The city dug wells here and there and let residents do what they pleased with their plumbing systems.

That all changed when the wells went dry.

Eric Durban / Harvest Public Media

Water levels within the Ogallala Aquifer, a wide source of groundwater in western Kansas, have been declining to dangerously low levels for the past few years. 

Wikimedia -- CC

A lot has changed in the three decades since the idea of building an aqueduct from the Missouri River to western Kansas was first studied and shelved. For one thing, the water shortages that were mere projections then are now imminent. That reality has prompted state officials to dust off the study and re-examine the aqueduct idea.

Frank Morris / Harvest Public Media

The drought, now in its third year in parts of western Kansas is taxing a resource that has been under pressure for decades: the High Plains Aquifer system.

The aquifer is enormous, but it’s running low in places, forcing a move to dry land farming, and farmers aren’t the only ones effected.

The drought has been burning up crops, lawns and trees for three years now. But there are places where you wouldn’t even know it’s dry, like at the Garden City Big Pool, in Garden City, Kan.

Frank Morris / Harvest Public Media

Imagine enough water to fill a couple of great lakes, but spread under some of the driest parts of eight western states. That was the High Plains Aquifer 60 years ago, before new pumping and irrigation systems made it easy for farmers to extract billions of gallons from it, and use it to grow lucrative crops on the arid land.

An agricultural gold rush of sorts followed, transforming the regional economy. But now parts of the aquifer are playing out, leaving parts of the high plains high and dry.