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June 27, 2006
Contact: Brandis Griffith, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

Groundwater faces marked decline in parts of Kansas, researchers say

LAWRENCE — Vegetation is currently under significant stress across western portions of Kansas, and another difficult year lies ahead for farmers if drought continues to diminish groundwater levels, say researchers at the University of Kansas.

Already, 50 percent of the state’s winter wheat crop is considered in poor to very poor condition, compared with 22 percent mid-June last year.

KU’s Kansas Applied Remote Sensing Program uses an advanced high resolution radiometer to monitor vegetation status in the United States on a weekly basis. The satellite orbits the planet every 99 minutes to capture daily images over Kansas.

Kevin Price, professor and senior scientist in geography, said photos show vegetation amounts are under significant stress across western portions of the state.

“If it’s hot and dry, the plant isn’t able to bring much moisture out of the soil,” said Price. “When more water escapes than it can replenish, that’s when the plant wilts.”

In January, the Kansas Geological Survey at KU measured 1,300 water wells, finding that their water levels had decreased by an average of 0.57 feet from January 2005 to January 2006. The biggest decline occurred in parts of southwestern Kansas where the average decline was 1.15 feet. Most of those wells are used for irrigation.

Recent rainfall totals have had little impact on the levels.

Through the end of May, the National Weather Service in Dodge City recorded that rainfall totals are 2.52 inches below normal.

In portions of northwest Kansas, rainfall amounts for the three-month period ending in May are as low as 35 percent of the norm. All but one county in that region are at or below 80 percent for the same time period.

Maps at the National Weather Services’ Arkansas-Red Basin River Forecast Center show parts of eastern Kansas, between Wichita, Emporia and Chanute, at 25percent to 50 percent of normal precipitation amounts.

“We were in a La Niña period over the winter,” said Jerry Killingsworth at the National Weather Service in Goodland. “That usually, but not always, means we’re at below-normal precipitation in west Kansas.”

Killingsworth said because the La Niña period ended a month or two ago, rainfall totals should return to normal, noting the increased precipitation amounts in June.

“It would take many, many, many above-normal months to get out of a drought,” he said. For some counties, the drought goes all the way back to 2000.

Killingsworth said the June rains may be too little, too late for Kansas farmers harvesting their winter wheat crops.

Brownie Wilson, hydrologic data/GIS manager at the biological survey, said this is the time of year when farmers need the rain for other crops. Without an improvement, next year’s groundwater levels could face a marked decline.

“Hopefully farmers who harvested an early wheat crop will have enough moisture to get a fall crop put in,” said Jeff Hutton of the National Weather Service’s Dodge City office.

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