The problems surrounding the Ogallala aquifer in the Great Plains, and the threat to its sustainability for future generations of farmers, are well documented, as the world’s largest freshwater aquifer has declined by some 38 million acre-feet in the last several decades.

But it appears that researchers from several universities are getting even more serious about addressing this challenge, after receiving a $10 million grant recently from the USDA to research potential solutions and conduct outreach to farming communities.

Colorado State University is leading the 4-year project, which will also include Kansas State, Oklahoma State, New Mexico State and Texas A&M universities and several other institutions.

Along with integrating various climate and cropping models and data and investigating potential incentives and policies to increase adoption of water-saving practices, the team also wants to develop and identify the best irrigation technologies, cropping system management practices and decision support tools to improve water-use efficiency.

Research work will take place at six “hub” sites in North Platte, Neb., Akron, Colo., Tribune and Garden City, Kan., Goodwell, Okla., Clovis, N.M. and Lubbock, Texas.

Spanning nearly 174,000 square miles, the Ogallala aquifer is the primary water source for the region, including nearly all of Nebraska and sections of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. About 90% of the water used is for agricultural irrigation.

The research team notes there has been some progress with the aquifer in the last decade, as development and adoption of irrigation scheduling has reduced water application by 15% over the past 10 years, saving farmers approximately $200 million.

Land in subsurface drip irrigation has doubled since 2003, and new irrigation automation systems have been developed on 6 million acres that reduce labor costs by $7 per acre, researchers say. There’s also been development of drought- and heat-resistant crop varieties for corn, cotton, sorghum, wheat and peanuts.

But the progress needs to continue and expand, especially given the pattern shift toward warmer, drier weather being called for by climatic models. Precision irrigation research and adoption is expected to be a major focus of this program, as will be identifying the potential for more intensive cropping rotations and improved soil health to boost water-use efficiency.

I think it’s becoming clearer each year that accepting the status quo when it comes to water management isn’t going to be acceptable in the states affected — not if we expect the aquifer to be available when it’s needed for future generations.

While the study doesn’t mention no-till practices or cover crops specifically, there’s substantial mention in the team’s grant proposal of the role soil health can play in improving water-use efficiency, or in helping areas convert from irrigation to dryland farming if necessary. We can’t emphasize enough the need for improved agricultural soils.

It is also crucial that agricultural leaders and stakeholders in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, where the water-supply issues are most serious, start finding some common ground on water-rights issues and water management.

The Omaha World-Herald had an interesting editorial about the cooperative agreements that were negotiated in Nebraska decades ago that, if adopted in other states, might have avoided or at least delayed the desperate situation those states are facing now.