Earlier this week I was walking into a gas station in between visits with no-tillers in Missouri when a man climbed out of his truck, saw my No-Till Farmer shirt and asked if I was a farmer.
I said “no,” but the gentleman continued on to say, “I farm in Nebraska and if our pivots weren’t running we’d be in trouble.”
The sustainability outlook for the Ogallala aquifer — which serves parts of Nebraska and six other states — has been dire enough that some growers have been mulling over and even preparing for a future with little or no irrigation.
But some good news came recently when the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) released new data showing farmers in a 99-square-mile area in Sheridan County, Kan. — dubbed Sheridan-6 Local Enhanced Management Area (LEMA) — reduced their irrigation by more than 20% in the last 4 years, but didn’t see a reduction in profits.
This area showed a decline of 23 inches per year for a decade, but since being formed in 2013 the rate of water level decline was reduced to less than 5 inches a year. KGS says new data show the aquifer is recharging more quickly than originally thought, and reductions of 25% in average annual pumping could lead to stable water levels across most of the aquifer for a decade or two.
Getting some of the credit for this progress are new irrigation techniques like deep soil moisture probes, drop nozzle and mobile drip irrigation and sophisticated irrigation water management, as repealing some wasteful water laws.
In a tour of farm communities in western Kansas last week, Gov. Sam Brownback — who helped form the 50-year Water Vision program through meetings with irrigators, producers and others — said Kansans have their mentality towards water in the state, “to a sustainable resource, not one we are just going to use up.”
The news isn’t good everywhere, however. Also last week, New Mexico’s top land manager said parts of eastern New Mexico were in crisis mode as the Ogallala aquifer continues to be depleted. The aquifer underlies parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico.
State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn pointed to the lack of alternative sources of fresh water for the region along the New Mexico-Texas border, where oil and natural gas development that uses water is ramping up again and communities are looking to shore up their share of what water is available.
The State Land Office in July was to start reviewing hydrological information before renewing or approving new access to drill wells on trust land that involve the use of fresh water from the Ogallala aquifer for oil and gas production and related activities.
The U.S. government is also funneling another $5 million to a pipeline project that is designed to one day bring billions of gallons of drinking water a year to parts of eastern New Mexico. The Ute pipeline project has been decades in the making to ease the strain on the Ogallala aquifer.
Other states relying on the Ogallala aquifer for farming, oil and gas drilling, drinking water and other needs must take a serious look at what’s been accomplished in Kansas so far, and examine how to incentivize farmers and other stakeholders to use these new technologies and revise their water-use habits.
Perhaps even further reductions in irrigation needs could be realized by getting more growers to adopt no-till practices and start working with cover crops. Healthier soils will retain more water and can play an important role in helping ot protect the economic future of these communities.