KU News Release

August 28, 2012
Contact: Jim Butler, Kansas Geological Survey, 785-864-2116; Marios Sophocleous, Kansas Geological Survey, 785-864-2116

New Kansas Geological Survey online atlas underscores state's water concerns

Updated maps are available through the Kansas Geological Survey's online atlas.

LAWRENCE — As Kansas faces the prospect of continuing groundwater declines, a new online atlas offers insight into the past, present and future of the state’s most important aquifer system.

The High Plains aquifer is a massive network of water-bearing formations that underlies parts of eight states and includes the extensive Ogallala aquifer, the Great Bend Prairie aquifer in central Kansas and the Equus Beds aquifer north and west of Wichita. The network is the primary source of industrial and irrigation water for much of western and central Kansas and public water for cities such as Wichita, Hutchinson and Garden City.

Compiled by the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas, the High Plains Aquifer Atlas features more than 70 maps — several animated or interactive — that can be used to investigate such timely topics as changes in groundwater level and availability over time, water use and water rights, and the region’s climatic conditions.

“This atlas is fully electronic and intended to be user-driven with maps that can be downloaded, presented as a slideshow, and shared via social media and email,” said Dustin Fross, KGS High Plains data manager and the atlas’ lead compiler. “It makes a lot of previously hard-to-find information easily accessible.”

A major feature of the atlas is an interactive map element in which annual water-level measurements from 1,000 wells in the aquifer can be accessed by clicking on individual well icons.

Users can also readily access real-time data, updated every two hours, on water levels in three wells monitored continuously by the KGS. The wells, located in Thomas, Scott and Haskell counties in western Kansas, provide valuable information about how those portions of the aquifer respond to pumping.

“The interactive atlas component is a powerful tool that gives people information on current aquifer conditions, and changes over time, in any portion of the High Plains aquifer,” said Jim Butler, chief of the KGS geohydrology section. “That information should be of considerable value to policymakers, water managers, landowners and anyone interested in the state’s groundwater resources.”

Four animated maps in the atlas, when compared, highlight a strong connection between groundwater use and groundwater availability.

One animated map illustrates the rapid development of water rights across the state since 1940. Another features the statewide increase in irrigation during the same time period. A third shows changes in irrigation technology in the High Plains aquifer region over about the past 20 years, and a fourth tracks the rise, fall, and fluctuations in groundwater levels throughout the aquifer from 1996 to the present.

“The High Plains aquifer has made what was once labeled ‘the Great American Desert’ one of the best farming areas in the world,” said KGS hydrogeologist Marios Sophocleous. “Unfortunately, recharge of the aquifer, which comes almost solely from precipitation, is very slow in the semiarid High Plains of western Kansas.”

A map showing the potential for groundwater recharge statewide indicates that recharge potential is greatest in the east and lowest in the west, where groundwater is heavily relied on and recharge is often insufficient, especially in the southwest corner.

In addition to experiencing groundwater declines, western Kansas and some limited areas elsewhere have experienced drops in surface stream flow as illustrated by a map showing sections of the Arkansas, Smoky Hill, and Cimarron rivers and other waterways that have virtually dried up over the last 50 years.

Compiled by Fross, Sophocleous, Butler, and KGS water data manager Brownie Wilson, the High Plains Aquifer Atlas will be continuously updated as new data become available. It can be accessed here.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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