KU News Release

April 20, 2011
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, 785-864-8855

Pioneering study will gauge lifespan of aquifer vital to High Plains agriculture

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LAWRENCE — Marios Sophocleous’ office is overstuffed with files, maps, articles and books that represent his more than 30 years of research into the hydrogeology of Kansas, including the Ogallala aquifer, the vast store of ground water that supports agriculture across the High Plains.

Now, thanks to a four-year, $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the senior scientist at the Kansas Geological Survey is leading a definitive new study to clarify the future prospects of the Ogallala. Two other Kansas Geological Survey scientists, Jim Butler and Don Whittemore, also are involved in this study.

“People thought that this resource was infinite, because there was so much water,” Sophocleous said. “With time, more and more wells were installed, more and more water was pumped. But of course the area is semiarid and doesn’t get much recharge at all. The pumping from the aquifer is many times more than the recharge. It’s as if they are mining that resource. If they keep expanding irrigation, eventually it’s going to dry out.”

Indeed, cropland across more than 174,000 square miles in eight U.S. states is irrigated with ground water from the Ogallala, also known as the High Plains Aquifer. The irrigation sustains one of the most abundant agricultural zones in the world, producing alfalfa, corn, sorghum, soybean and wheat, as well as supplying water to immense feedlots.

It is a complicated system that includes hydrologic, economic and environmental factors. Sophocleous said that predicting the rate of depletion from the Ogallala takes an all-around approach. The research team includes co-investigators from KU and Michigan State University who specialize in many disciplines. The latter institution received $1.2 million for the study.

“We’ll evaluate a number of short and long-term scenarios from the hydrological and socioeconomic perspective,” Sophocleous said. “We’re planning to first compile all existing data and integrate them, and using innovative, state-of-the-art, holistic models of unprecedented spatial and temporal scale, we will answer questions about what the effect might be of climate change, of land-use changes and also incorporate how the irrigators and farmers may respond to changes in technology, economics and climate.”

The stakes are high not just for agribusiness stretching from Texas to South Dakota, but also for the nation as a whole. According to Sophocleous, at least one-fifth of the total annual agricultural products in the United States directly depend upon water from the Ogallala and about half of the nation’s grain-fed beef is produced in the Ogallala region.

“Everything you eat, a part of it comes from the Ogallala aquifer,” said the KU researcher.

Without a more sustainable approach to using the Ogallala, Sophocleous said, the future of the aquifer, along with the agricultural communities and businesses that depend on it, appears bleak.

“It would be a major social problem for the region because so many people depend upon that water for their livelihood, for their farming and for their ranching,” warned Sophocleous. “If they keep going the way they are going today, with the water levels continuously declining, eventually the irrigators won’t be able to pump enough water to irrigate their land or support their lifestyle as they have it today.”

On the High Plains of western Kansas, some areas already have depleted their ground water. Sophocleous said that according to current projections other areas have between less than 25 and more than 100 years remaining with irrigated agriculture, because the water-saturated aquifer thickness vary in different parts of the Ogallala.

However, with more prudent usage of the Ogallala, Sophocleous predicted that irrigated farming could have a lengthy future still. The results of the research under way will be given to policymakers, stakeholders and the public in order to help shape guiding principles and practices relating to irrigation from the Ogallala.

“There is no way to maintain this level of development indefinitely,” Sophocleous said. “But with more wise management of the resource, we can extend it for many more generations than if we don’t do anything about it.”

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