Many eyes are on Lake Powell and the power pool #ColoradoRiver

August 12, 2014
A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam -- Photo USBR

A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR

Here’s a look at the Lake Powell power pool and the cascading effects if the reservoir drops below the level necessary to continue to deliver power to the southwestern US, from Allen Best writing in The Denver Post:

Colorado water leaders used a curious approach last week in announcing a new water conservation program involving the Colorado River. They talked about electricity and the effect of spiking prices on corn farmers in eastern Colorado, ski area operators on the Western Slope, and cities along the Front Range.

The scenario? A Lake Powell receding to what is called a minimum power pool, leaving too little water to generate electricity. Glen Canyon Dam, which creates the reservoir, is responsible for 81 percent of the power produced by a series of giant dams on the Colorado River and its tributaries, including those on the Gunnison River. This electricity is distributed by the Western Area Power Administration to 5.8 million people in Colorado, Arizona and other states.

Should this power supply be interrupted, WAPA would make good on its contracts with local utilities by buying power in the spot market, such as from gas-fired power plants. But extended drought on the Colorado would certainly increase prices to reflect the higher costs of replacement by other sources.

Hydropower is far cheaper than renewables but also fossil fuels. Rural electrical cooperatives get nearly half the production, followed closely by municipalities, including Colorado Springs, Delta and Sterling, plus Longmont, Loveland, Estes Park and Fort Collins.

Right now, WAPA is selling the energy from Glen Canyon and the other dams at $12.19 per megawatt-hour with a separate charge for transmission. Just how much prices would increase in event of prolonged interruption is speculative. The same agency, however is shoring up August deliveries with purchases of power from other sources at $55 per megawatt-hour, according to Jeffrey W. Ackerman, the Montrose-based manager of WAPA’s Colorado River Supply Project’s Energy Management Office.

This illustrates the bone-on-bone relationship between energy production and water during time of drought.

Yet the broader story about the Colorado River is about a narrowing razor’s edge between supply and demand. There’s no crisis, but water officials are planning for one. A healthy snowpack in Colorado last winter helped, but did not solve problems. The basin as a whole was still below average, as it has been 11 of the last 14 years.

“As leaders, we simply cannot wait for a crisis to happen before we come together to figure out how to address it,” said Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water. “That would be irresponsible.”

Denver Water and providers in Arizona, Nevada and California, plus the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, are pooling $11 million to launch a demand-management program. Utilities such as Xcel Energy have similar programs, offering to pay customers willing to suspend use of air conditioners for a couple hours on hot summer afternoons.

In this case, $2.5 million is being allocated to fund programs that would yield reduced demands in Colorado and other states upstream of Lake Powell. The obvious idea is fallowing of crops, such as a hay meadow, with the irrigator to be reimbursed. But Lochhead stresses that it’s a blank chalkboard. The intent is to solicit ideas and then “demonstrate effective demand-management techniques.”

“It’s not something we expect to do. It’s not something we want to do, but if the drought continues, we want to be ready,” says John McClow, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

The bulk of the $11 million will be allocated to demand-management programs in the lower-basin states.

Doug Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment, sees the agreement as representative of broad shift in states sharing water from the Colorado River. “In the past, they could get together to build things such as dams. Now, they are teaming up to save water,” he says. “That’s a paradigm shift.”

An effort involving The Nature Conservancy and water agencies based in Durango and Glenwood Springs has been underway for five years. That parallel effort, however, is driven by a different trigger: the prospect of a compact curtailment or “call.” The 1922 Colorado River Compact requires Colorado and the other upper-basin states — Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — to deliver an average 75 million acre-feet over any given 10-year period.

Upper basin states at this point have a cushion of 15 million acre-feet, or two years’ supply. Yet abundant snowfall last year in Colorado only slightly filled Lake Powell. One relatively good year does not compensate for several bad ones.

Always hovering in the background is the prospect of even worse. Tree rings from across the River Basin provide clear evidence of longer, more intense droughts 800 to 900 years ago. An additional layer is the prospect of higher temperatures caused by global warming.

Chris Treese, external affairs director for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, acknowledges a growing sense of urgency. “We could be back in a near-crisis or crisis situation in as little two or three years,” he says. And for water planners, who typically try to think decades ahead, that’s a current event, he adds. [ed. emphasis mine]

How likely is this dead pool? U.S. Bureau of Reclamation modelers in April found a 4 percent chance of a minimum power pool in 2018 and a 6 percent in 2019. The models are based on recorded hydrology of the last 105 years.

What if Powell does decline and electricity cannot be generated? It depends upon how long the shortage lasts. A longer outage would affect electrical consumers from Arizona to Nebraska. “We’re struggling to quantify the impact,” says Andrew Colismo, government affairs manager for Colorado Springs Utility.

Tri-State is the single largest consumer, purchasing 28 percent of all power produced in 2012 from the dams. It sells this power to 44 member co-operatives in a four-state region, including those who sell to irrigators in eastern Colorado.

Irrigation is a huge consumer of cheap power. In northeastern Colorado, Holyoke-based Highline Electric meets demand that ranges from a low of 25 megawatts to a high of 190 megawatts, the latter occurring when irrigation pumps are drawing water from the Ogallala aquifer to spread across 123-acre circles of corn, beans and other crops. Some large irrigators pay hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in electrical costs, says general manager Mark Farnsworth.

The irony is that if a drought occurs accompanied by heat, as is usually the case, irrigators will probably pump more water and air conditioners will work even harder. Power demands will rise as water levels drop.

Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey says existing rate structures anticipate both droughts and heavy precipitation.

Lochhead and others also point to other ripples from interrupted power sales. Revenues from hydroelectric sales, which were $198 million last year, are used for a great many programs: selenium control in the Delta-Montrose area, work to maintain ecosystem integrity downstream from Glen Canyon and ongoing efforts to preserve four endangered fish species in the Colorado River and its tributaries.

On Wednesday, Lochhead met with an interim legislative water committee at the Colorado Capitol to report about the new agreement. The testimony all day had been about potential measures to expand water conservation as Colorado tries to figure out how to accommodate a population expected to double from today’s 5.3 million residents to 10 million people by mid-century without drying up rivers and farms.

Denver Water already serves 1.3 million, but gets about half of its water from the Western Slope. “We have a vested interest” in the Colorado River, Lochhead told legislators.

One outstanding question is whether Denver and other water providers on the High Plains should try to be able to get additional water from new or expanded transmountain diversions.

With this story from Lake Powell, the take-home message is don’t count on it.

Allen Best writes frequently for The Post about water and energy and also publishes an online news magazine, found at

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

The Last Drop: America’s Breadbasket Faces Dire Water Crisis — NBC News

July 15, 2014
Significant portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate. Courtesy of MSU

Significant portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate. Courtesy of MSU

From (Brian Brown):

The scope of this mounting crisis is difficult to overstate: The High Plains of Texas are swiftly running out of groundwater supplied by one of the world’s largest aquifers – the Ogallala. A study by Texas Tech University has predicted that if groundwater production goes unabated, vast portions of several counties in the southern High Plains will soon have little water left in the aquifer to be of any practical value.

The Ogallala Aquifer spreads across eight states, from Texas to South Dakota, covering 111.8 million acres and 175,000 square miles. It’s the fountain of life not only for much of the Texas Panhandle, but also for the entire American Breadbasket of the Great Plains, a highly-sophisticated, amazingly-productive agricultural region that literally helps feed the world.

This catastrophic depletion is primarily manmade. By the early eighties, automated center-pivot irrigation devices were in wide use – those familiar spidery-armed wings processing in a circle atop wheeled tripods. This super-sized sprinkler system allowed farmers to water crops more regularly and effectively, which both significantly increased crop yields and precipitously drained the Ogallala.

Compounding the drawdown has been the nature of the Ogallala itself. Created 10 million years ago, this buried fossil water is–in many places—not recharged by precipitation or surface water. When it’s gone, it’s gone for centuries…

“The depletion of the Ogallala is an internationally important crisis,” says Burke Griggs, Ph.D., consulting professor at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. “How individual states manage the depletion of that aquifer will obviously have international consequences.”[...]

“We’re headed for a brick wall at 100 miles per hour,” says James Mahan, Bruce Spinhirne’s father-in-law and a plant physiologist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service lab in Lubbock. “And, really, the effects of climate change are branches hitting the windshield along the way.”

From (Brian Brown):

Last August, in a still-echoing blockbuster study, Dave Steward, Ph.D., and his colleagues at Kansas State University, informed the $15 billion Kansas agricultural economy that it was on a fast track to oblivion. The reason: The precipitous, calamitous withdrawal rates of the Ogallala Aquifer.

The Ogallala is little known outside this part of the world, but it’s the primary source of irrigation not just for all of western Kansas, but the entire Great Plains. This gigantic, soaked subterranean sponge – fossil water created 10 million years ago – touches eight states, stretching from Texas all the way up to South Dakota, across 111.8 million acres and 175,000 square miles.

The Ogallala supports a highly-sophisticated and amazingly-productive agricultural region critical to the world’s food supply. With the global population increasing, and as other vital aquifers suffer equally dramatic declines, scientists acknowledge that if the farmers here cannot meet ever-growing food demands, billions could starve.

Steward’s study predicted that nearly 70 percent of the portion of the Ogallala beneath western Kansas will be gone in 50 years. He’s not the kind of person to shout these results; he speaks slowly and carefully. Yet, he has the evident intensity of one who’s serving a greater purpose. “We need to make sure our grandkids and our great grandkids have the capacity to feed themselves,” he says.

Now the chief executive of the state, himself from a farming family, is using Steward’s report as a call to action.

“One of the things we [have] to get over … is this tragedy of the commons problem with the Ogallala,” says Governor Sam Brownback, a Republican who at age 29 was the youngest agriculture secretary in state history. “It’s a big common body of water. It’s why the oceans get overfished … You have a common good and then nobody is responsible for it.”

“That’s one of the key policy issues that you have to get around,” Brownback says in his roomy, towering office at the capitol in Topeka. “Everyone has to take care of this water.”

In that spirit, a tiny legion of farmers and landowners in the northwest corner of Kansas, where the Rockies begin their rise, have just begun year two of what could be one of the most influential social experiments of this century.

The group is only 125 in number but controls 63,000 acres of prime farmland in Sheridan County. Collectively, voluntarily, they have enacted a new, stringent five-year water conservation target, backed by the force of law and significant punishments.

The Local Enhanced Management Act, or LEMA, is the first measure of its kind in the United States. Specifically, the farmers are limiting themselves to a total of 55 inches of irrigated water over five years – an average of 11 inches per year…

“So now we have the high morality of the need to protect the ecosphere. But it’s legal to rip the tops off mountains. It’s legal to drill in the Arctic. It’s legal to drill in the Gulf. It’s legal to build pipelines. It’s legal to send carbon into the dumping ground called an atmosphere. So we’ve not yet reconciled the high moral with the legal.” [Wes Jackson]

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here and here.

Ogallala water rights are being tested in a Kansas county court

May 14, 2014

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here.

South Platte River Basin: ‘…no simple answers’ to the issue of groundwater management in the area — Bill Jerke

March 13, 2014
Map of the South Platte River alluvial aquifer subregions -- Colorado Water Conservation Board via the Colorado Water Institute

Map of the South Platte River alluvial aquifer subregions — Colorado Water Conservation Board via the Colorado Water Institute

From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

The question was asked: Is the conversation about agriculture issues more emotional today than ever before?

Responding before the crowd at the University of Northern Colorado for the day’s panel on Colorado agriculture, Paul Sater, a Kersey-area farmer, threw in his two cents.

His answer was “yes.”

Sater said only a generation or two ago, everyone was just a grandfather or other relative away from the farm or ranch, and now, with only about 1 percent of the population involved in ag, an unknowing public has questions — leading some to even have suspicions.

“In absence of reason, you have emotion,” he said. “That’s where we are today.”

Taking the emotion out of the ag-conversation equation and providing information for voters on Colorado agriculture was the goal of the League of Women Voters of Greeley-Weld County, who hosted the event.

On the panel was Bill Jerke, a LaSalle-area farmer and former Weld County commissioner and state legislator; Brent Lahman, relationship manager at Rabo AgriFinance in Loveland; Ray Peterson, a Nunn-area rancher who serves as president of the Weld County Farmers Union and as a board member of the Weld County Livestock Association; Luke Runyon, agribusiness reporter for KUNC and Harvest Public Media, the latter of which is a reporting collaboration of several public media stations across the country that covers issues related to food and food production; and Sater, a rancher and farmer with experience in the dairy industry.

One of the topics brought up most was that of the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food production.

The farmers and ranchers on the panel explained to the crowd that humans have been genetically modifying crops and livestock for thousands of years, through cross-breeding.

“Now, it’s just being done in a lab,” Jerke said. “That’s the only difference.”

Jerke also stressed that he has no issue with labeling food that contains GMOs on a voluntary basis, but not making it mandatory, which has been a ballot measure in some states recently.

Jerke said he was fine letting the producer or processor use the “GMO-free” label simply as a marketing tool, like the “organic” label is used.

He and others on the panel further noted, though, that true GMO-free food might be tough to come by, because of genetic engineering’s deep roots historically in human food production.

Peterson stressed the need for genetic modifying, explaining that his wheat crop one year was wiped out by pests before he began using a wheat variety that was resistant to it.

On the issue of water, Jerke stressed that there’s “no simple answers” to the issue of groundwater management in the area, and noted the ongoing depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. One of the world’s largest aquifers, underlying portions of eight states, including far east Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas, is being mined and not replenished at an alarming rate, he said, and could become a major issue for the U.S.

He further stressed agriculture’s needs for completion of two area water-storage projects still in the works — the Northern Integrated Supply Project, which if approved would include two new reservoirs and provide 40,000 acre feet of water to northern Colorado, and prevent the drying up of about 60,000 acres of farmground, according to supporters’ studies; and the Chatfield Reallocation, an endeavor that would raise the Denver-area lake by as much as 12 feet, and, in doing so, provide additional water for area farmers and others.

In reference to the Chatfield project, Jerke said he didn’t understand why the studies and mitigation efforts to raise an existing reservoir just by 12 feet would cost the estimated $183 million.

Sater stressed that one of his biggest needs in agriculture is labor, but there’s no affordable way to bring to the U.S. the migrant workers who are willing to do the work.

“I do need labor, but don’t know what to do about it,” Sater said.

Lahman said some of his customers tell him that labor shortage is the No. 1 issue they have.

More South Platte River Basin coverage here.

Michigan State University: Saving the Great Plains water supply

December 14, 2013
Significant portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate. Courtesy of MSU

Significant portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate. Courtesy of MSU

From Michigan State University Today:

Significant portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest bodies of water in the United States, are at risk of drying up if it continues to be drained at its current rate.

In the current issue of Earth’s Future, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, Michigan State University scientists are proposing alternatives that will halt and hopefully reverse the unsustainable use of water drawdown in the aquifer. The body of water, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, spans from Texas to South Dakota and drives much of the region’s economy.

“Already, there are regions in Texas and Kansas where farmers can’t pump enough water to meet the demands of their crops,” said Bruno Basso, co-author and MSU ecosystem scientist. “If current withdrawal rates continue, such depletion will expand across extensive portions of the central and southern areas served by the aquifer during the next few decades.”

Despite the widespread, rapid decline of the water table, the number of irrigated acres across the region continues to increase. The situation isn’t completely dire, though, as the National Science Foundation-funded research revealed. Basso, David Hyndman and Anthony Kendall, MSU colleagues and co-authors, offered some policy solutions to avert some aspects of this water crisis.

Federal crop insurance could be changed to allow substantial water reductions, especially crops categorized as fully irrigated. An example of such a sustainable model was recently proposed by the governor of Kansas. It could save significant amounts of water, and it could be adopted regionally.

Another sustainable approach would be to adopt wholesale precision agriculture strategies. These would allow farmers to identify which areas in fields need more water and fertilizer. New precision agriculture strategies combine GPS technologies with site-specific management to apply optimal amounts of water and nutrients, which will increase farmer’s profitability and reduce environmental impact.

“When you have a cut in your hand and need disinfectant, you don’t dive into a pool of medicine, you apply it only where you need it and in the quantity that is strictly necessary; we can do the same in agricultural now,” said Basso, part of MSU’s Global Water Initiative.

Lastly, policies should address the issue in terms of crop yield ­– more crop per drop of water. Selecting crops with higher density can increase yield and decrease groundwater evaporation. Upgrades in irrigation systems can reduce water loss from 30 percent to almost zero. And careful water management can stop excess water from flooding fields and leaching valuable nutrients from the soil.

Simply put, the current water management strategies of the High Plains Aquifer are unsustainable. For the region to maintain this water source, there has to be a complete paradigm shift, Basso added.

“We emphasize the critical role of science as a foundation for policies that can help mitigate the disaster that is occurring across this region,” Basso said. “Policies solidly grounded in science are critical to ensure long-term sustainability and environmental integrity for future generations.”

More Ogallala Aquifer coverage here and here.

John Fleck: The new political economics of moving water

November 3, 2013

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

From inkstain (John Fleck):

…it seems clear that the days of federal funding for big projects like this are long over. There are examples of non-federal projects of this scale. Los Angeles has done it. But that’s for municipal water supplies, for which one can charge a lot more.

More Ogallala Aquifer coverage here and here.

USGS: Deficit in Nation’s Aquifers Accelerating

May 21, 2013


Here’s the release from the USGS (Jon Campbell/Leonard Konikow):

A new U.S. Geological Survey study documents that the Nation’s aquifers are being drawn down at an accelerating rate.

Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900-2008) comprehensively evaluates long-term cumulative depletion volumes in 40 separate aquifers (distinct underground water storage areas) in the United States, bringing together reliable information from previous references and from new analyses.

“Groundwater is one of the Nation’s most important natural resources. It provides drinking water in both rural and urban communities. It supports irrigation and industry, sustains the flow of streams and rivers, and maintains ecosystems,” said Suzette Kimball, acting USGS Director. “Because groundwater systems typically respond slowly to human actions, a long-term perspective is vital to manage this valuable resource in sustainable ways.”

To outline the scale of groundwater depletion across the country, here are two startling facts drawn from the study’s wealth of statistics. First, from 1900 to 2008, the Nation’s aquifers, the natural stocks of water found under the land, decreased (were depleted) by more than twice the volume of water found in Lake Erie. Second, groundwater depletion in the U.S. in the years 2000-2008 can explain more than 2 percent of the observed global sea-level rise during that period.

Since 1950, the use of groundwater resources for agricultural, industrial, and municipal purposes has greatly expanded in the United States. When groundwater is withdrawn from subsurface storage faster than it is recharged by precipitation or other water sources, the result is groundwater depletion. The depletion of groundwater has many negative consequences, including land subsidence, reduced well yields, and diminished spring and stream flows.

While the rate of groundwater depletion across the country has increased markedly since about 1950, the maximum rates have occurred during the most recent period of the study (2000–2008), when the depletion rate averaged almost 25 cubic kilometers per year. For comparison, 9.2 cubic kilometers per year is the historical average calculated over the 1900–2008 timespan of the study.

One of the best known and most investigated aquifers in the U.S. is the High Plains (or Ogallala) aquifer. It underlies more than 170,000 square miles of the Nation’s midsection and represents the principal source of water for irrigation and drinking in this major agricultural area. Substantial pumping of the High Plains aquifer for irrigation since the 1940s has resulted in large water-table declines that exceed 160 feet in places.

The study shows that, since 2000, depletion of the High Plains aquifer appears to be continuing at a high rate. The depletion during the last 8 years of record (2001–2008, inclusive) is about 32 percent of the cumulative depletion in this aquifer during the entire 20th century. The annual rate of depletion during this recent period averaged about 10.2 cubic kilometers, roughly 2 percent of the volume of water in Lake Erie.

More USGS coverage here.

‘Agriculture cannot be sustained in the Southern High Plains’ — Judy Reeves (Cirrus)

October 25, 2012


From Think Progress (Peyton Fleming):

“Agriculture cannot be sustained in the Southern High Plains,” Judy Reeves, senior hydrogeologist at Texas-based Cirrus Associates said flatly, speaking at the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) conference in water-stressed Lubbock, Texas where drought is still a daily topic. “We really need to start talking about the next economy here.”[...]

…what can water managers in West Texas and elsewhere in the arid West do to navigate these dire water challenges? Some interesting — and surprising — answers were provided at last week’s SEJ workshop, “Squeezing Blood from a Desert.”

Reality-based water pricing is a critical first step. Western water has historically been under priced, in large part because the federal government financed most of the region’s expensive water infrastructure, including pipelines and dams. But, as Sharene Leurig, water program manager at sustainability advocacy group Ceres said, “the era of federal largesse has passed.” That means Western utility water rates and revenues will need to be aligned with short- and long-term expenses. That means higher water rates.

But tools are available to curb water price inflation. Among the most appealing are strong demand management programs. By using carrots and sticks to reduce water use — especially for water-sapping lawns and landscaping — utilities can avoid having to finance expensive new water supplies…

More infrastructure coverage here.

Ogallala Aquifer, Lesser Prairie Chicken, Sage Grouse Initiatives Target Local Resource Concerns NRCS seeks applications for financial, technical assistance

March 22, 2012


Here’s the release from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (Katherine Burse-Johnson):

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Colorado recently announced that funding is available to help farmers and ranchers implement conservation practices, as part of the Ogallala Aquifer, Lesser Prairie Chicken, and Sage Grouse initiatives. These initiatives target efforts to address local resource concerns for important Colorado wildlife species, and water quality and quantity.

NRCS accepts applications on an ongoing basis. There will be two funding cycles in 2012. The first funding cycle will be March 30, 2012 and the second will be June 1.

“The Ogallala Aquifer, Lesser Prairie Chicken, and Sage Grouse initiatives are a few of several landscape conservation initiatives that maximize our conservation efforts to address some of Colorado’s most pressing natural resource challenges,” said Phyllis Ann Philipps, State Conservationist, NRCS, Colorado.

NRCS’ landscape conservation initiatives use a systems approach that focuses technical and financial assistance to implement a suite of conservation practices to address specific resource concerns. Through the Lesser Prairie Chicken and Sage Grouse initiatives, farmers and ranchers are incorporating conservation practices to improve healthy plant and animal communities by implementing practices such as prescribed grazing systems, fence marking, range plantings, brush/pinon-juniper management, and cross fencing into their agricultural operations. The Ogallala Aquifer Initiative will allow producers to install conservation practices that directly benefit water quality and water quantity issues.

Conservation assistance is available to producers through several 2008 Farm Bill conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Producers interested in becoming a part of the Ogallala Aquifer, Lesser Prairie Chicken, or Sage Grouse initiative, or any other NRCS programs and services, should contact their local USDA Service Center, or visit for more information.

Thanks to The Holyoke Enterprise for the heads up.

More Ogallala Aquifer coverage here.

The Ogalla Aquifer has dropped 274 million acre-feet since since the 1950s

November 9, 2011


From the International Business Times (Pierre Bertrand):

The High Plains (or Ogallala) Aquifer spans 111 million acres totaling 173,000 square miles. It’s a veritable underground ocean and is used to irrigate crops and support livestock in eight states from South Dakota to Texas.

The crops produced in the region are shipped everywhere throughout the world. It is one of the globe’s major agricultural producing regions – and it’s drying up.

Since the 1950s, when advancements in well technology and water pumping meant agriculturalists could extract record amounts of water, the aquifer has dropped roughly 274 million acre feet, the bulk of the decline happening since the mid-1980s.

Such a drop means water levels have dipped by more than 150 feet in parts of Texas’ Panhandle and South West Kansas, according to a United States Geologic Survey 2011 report that compared water level declines in recent years with levels 60 years ago…

Brownie Wilson, Kansas Geologic Survey’s water level database administrator, said out of 8.6 million acres of Ogallala-irrigated land in Kansas, 1.2 million acres of farm land will be at minimum threshold, or the level at which water can no longer be pumped from the ground for irrigation, within less than 25 years. That will add to the already 2.2 million acres of that state already at minimum threshold…

In 2009, 13 percent of the aquifer had sustained more than a 25 percent drop in its saturated thickness – or the depth of the aquifer. Another 5 percent sustained 50 percent drops, according to the report…

Water recharging the aquifer flows West to East. Depending on how much rainfall the area receives, less than 2 millimeters at times flows back into the aquifer a year, McGuire said. That’s less than one tenth of an inch…

[Troy Dumler, an agricultural economist with Kansas State University] said he suspects the state’s hodgepodge watering issues makes it hard for large-scale farming reform in the area to gain traction. While he remains cautiously optimistic, he adds policies will have to eventually be drafted to help encourage even less water use.

“I don’t think we can just stick our head in the sand and say ‘Oh everything will be fine,'” Dumler said, who anticipates watering issues could prompt some movement within the agricultural industry away from the state.

More ogallala aquifer coverage here and here.

Drought news: Kansas Governor Brownback wants to modify state water law abandonment provisions to help decrease depletions from the Ogallala (High Plains) aquifer

July 31, 2011


From the Ag Journal (Candace Krebs):

“The main recharge to the Ogallala in the Southern Plains are the small playa basins that dot the landscape,” [Carmon McCain, who handles information and education for the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District in Lubbock, Texas] said. “When you don’t get rain, you don’t have any water in those basins going into the aquifer.”[...]

Average annual recharge rate for the aquifer is half an inch per year, but the depth of withdrawal in some areas is many times that. In the Texas Panhandle, the water table was drawn down one and a half feet in 2009-2010 but only one 500th of a foot in 2010-2011, when hurricanes brought monsoon-like summer rains to the region. In western Kansas, the rate of decline had been diminishing since the 1960s, but that changed after 2000, when the latest drought cycle hit, and farmers began pumping more water. In southwest Kansas, where the drought has been particularly pronounced, well tests in January showed the water level in some parts of the aquifer had dropped more than 5 feet in the last year, according to the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas.

Around 400 geologists, water managers, ag producers and other stakeholders attended last week’s special Governor’s Economic Summit on the future of the Ogallala, hosted by Gov. Sam Brownback and held in conjunction with the annual Kansas Water Congress. The primary topic of discussion was how to preserve the aquifer without sacrificing economic growth…

One of Gov. Brownback’s priorities is reforming the state’s so-called “use it or lose it” water requirement that allows water rights to lapse if they go unused over a certain period of time, which many now view as a disincentive for conservation.

[Wayne Bossert's, longtime manager for Kansas’ Groundwater Management District No. 4 in Colby], priority is making it easier to enforce water use restrictions in high priority areas where groundwater declines are most dramatic. Currently, the process of designating “intensive use control areas” is hard to implement, and he wants to see laws changed to make the system more “user friendly.”

At the summit, municipalities expressed concerns about how to get access to affordable water rights. “It’s problematic for them,” Bossert said. “But it’s supply and demand at the most fundamental level.”[...]

In Texas, concerns about the future of the aquifer prompted the High Plains district in Lubbock to adopt new rules recently aimed at cutting back the rate of depletion. “We know the Ogallala is a mined resource,” McCain concedes. “It’s been used continuously since the 1930s. What we are doing is trying to extend the life of the Ogallala for another 50 years.” The new rule amendments establish the first-ever production limit for groundwater pumping within the 16-county High Plains Water District service area. That level will drop in successive years, to eventually reach a level of 1.25 acre-feet, or 15 inches per year, in 2016. The district is also requiring annual reports on water use and a meter on every well beginning in 2012…

“Efficiency and conservation are not the same thing,” [Jim Conkwright, the district’s general manager] asserts. “Efficiency might allow you to irrigate more acres, but you might still be using the same amount of water.”

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here and here.

Water and the western U.S.: John Wesley Powell was correct

March 29, 2011

A picture named johnwesleypowell.jpg

From Huffpost Green (Brian Fagan):

In 1893, John Wesley Powell of Grand Canyon fame, Director of the US Geological Survey, addressed an irrigation conference in Los Angeles about water in the American West. He flatly stated that there was insufficient water in the American West to support widespread irrigation agriculture. Powell was shouted down, forced by hostile interests in Congress to resign from the Geological Survey. But history has shown he was right, for our reckless consumption has taken us far beyond the point of sustainability…

No question, our grandchildren and great grandchildren will live in a very different hydrological world. Quite apart from renegotiating the now-obsolete Colorado River Compact, we will have to break the habits of our lifetimes and use water very differently. If, for example, we reduced agricultural allocations and the amount of city water going to landscaping from 50% to 5%, we would save nearly 20% of the annual flow of the Colorado River alone.

Groundwater is also vanishing further to the east, from Colorado and New Mexico to Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, where the vast Ogallala aquifer under the Great Plains supports hundreds of communities, also large cities and major agricultural and mining activities. The Ogallala supplies about a third of the nation’s groundwater used for irrigation. US Geological Survey experts have calculated that irrigation alone sucked about 21 million acre feet (260 cubic kilometers) of water from the Ogallala in 2000, a figure slightly larger than the historic annual discharge rate of the Colorado River. Some hydrologists believe that the aquifer will dry up in about 25 years.

More Colorado water coverage here.

USGS: Digital map of the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer

December 11, 2010

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Every now and then I run across a well-crafted graphic. Click on the thumbnail graphic to the right to see a map of the boundary of the Ogallala Aquifer from the United States Geological Service.

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here and here.

The National Science Foundation funds Michigan State University effort to develop a management plan for the Ogallala (High Plains) aquifer

October 19, 2010

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Here’s the release from Michigan State University (Layne Cameron):

Researchers at Michigan State University are helping shape the future of the High Plains’ water supply.

The Ogallala Aquifer is a vast underground system that spans from South Dakota to Texas with smaller portions in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. It is one of the world’s largest aquifer systems, storing nearly as much water as Lake Erie and Lake Huron combined. Yet this seemingly limitless water supply, a key component supporting the Great Plains’ bountiful agriculture production, is shrinking.

The National Science Foundation has awarded MSU $1.2 million to help shape a course to better manage this important natural resource. The multidisciplinary team of researchers, led by hydrogeologist David Hyndman, will use the four-year grant to develop a sustainability plan based on economic, sociological and geographic issues affecting the aquifer.

“For more than 80 years, the Ogallala Aquifer has been used for irrigation, and the withdrawals far exceed its ability to replenish itself,” said Hyndman, who worked with the Kansas Geological Survey on this project. “We are on an unsustainable course and must make difficult changes if we are to keep using some of the best agricultural land in the country.”

Researchers will review decades of scientific data. They also will study the interactions between the region’s landscape, atmosphere and socioeconomic systems and link this data with climate, hydrology, vegetation and economic models.

The end result will produce predictions and impact assessments covering a range of potential solutions. Community and government leaders will be able to implement the team’s forecasts to adjust land management policies and to make strides toward sustainable water-use practices.

“Navigating a patchwork of state laws, regulations and economics means any change will require complex solutions,” Hyndman said. “And since scientific solutions don’t exist in a vacuum, our plan will also address social and economic variables.”

The MSU research team comprises Jinhua Zhao, associate professor of agricultural economics; Stephen Gasteyer, assistant professor of sociology; Nathan Moore, assistant professor of geography; Shiyuan Zhong, associate professor of geography; Warren Wood, John Hannah Visiting Professor of Integrative Studies; and Anthony Kendall, geological sciences research associate.

The grant is funded through the NSF’s Water Sustainability and Climate program.

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here and here.

Nebraska reaches accord with Colorado over the proposed Republican River compliance pipeline

May 15, 2010

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From The Yuma Pioneer (Stan Murphy):

The States agreed on a schedule for Pipeline deliveries that will avoid deliveries during the irrigation season to the maximum extent possible, which is consistent with the schedule developed by the RRWCD’s engineer. Colorado also agreed to support Nebraska’s proposed resolution of its Crediting Issue (which is to give Nebraska credit for the payment of damages in the running averages used to determine Compact compliance if Nebraska is required to pay damages to Kansas). The stipulation does not resolve Kansas’ issues with the Pipeline, but it removes one road block to completion of the Pipeline. The arbitration before the arbitrator selected by the States, Martha O. Pagel, an attorney from Portland, Oregon, is scheduled for July 12-14, 2010, in Kansas City, Kansas.

Second, on May 4, Kansas filed a motion with the U.S. Supreme Court for leave to file a petition to hold Nebraska in contempt for violating the Decree in Kansas v. Nebraska and Colorado. Kansas said in the petition that no relief is sought against Colorado, but Kansas reserves the right to seek relief at a later time against Colorado for its violations of the Decree. In the petition, Kansas asked that Nebraska be adjudged in contempt and enjoined from further violations of the Compact, that Nebraska be ordered to pay over to Kansas the amount of Nebraska’s profits or Kansas’ losses resulting from Nebraska’s violations, whichever is greater, that Nebraska be ordered to pay preset sanctions in the event of future violations, that Nebraska be ordered to reduce groundwater pumping, and that a river master be appointed to monitor and ensure Nebraska’s compliance with the Decree.

The filing of the petition underscores the need for the Compact Compliance Pipeline to bring Colorado into compliance with its Statewide Compact allocations. Kansas continues to insist that Colorado is in violation of the sub-basin non-impairment requirement in the South Fork sub-basin. Colorado views that as a separate issue and has filed a motion to dismiss that issue from the arbitration.

More Republican River Basin coverage here and here.

Republican River Basin: Colorado State Attorney General’s office steps in to force Republican River compliance arbitrator decision

January 7, 2010

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From The Yuma Pioneer (Tony Rayl):

Due to delays in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska choosing an arbitrator, and additional delays by Nebraska insisting on an in-person interview with the finalists before they could agree on an arbitrator, Peter Ampe of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, invoked section VII.C.2 of the Final Settlement Stipulation and requested CDR Associates of Boulder, Colorado, to select the arbitrator. Three CDR staff members reviewed the resumes, two that have worked on Republican River issues, and one independent reviewer. All concurred with a recommendation that Martha Pagel should be the arbitrator for Republican River Compact issues. Her experience with groundwater, as former Director of the Oregon Water Resources Department and background as a lawyer and making decisions on technical groundwater issues, qualify her for the position.

Colorado State Engineer Dick Wolfe told the Pioneer earlier this week that the states are close to getting Pagel under contract. Once on the job, she and the states will determine any appropriate modifications to the schedule. “At this time, we do not know the extent the timeline will be affected,” Wolfe said. According to a bio of Pagel found at the web site of the lawfirm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, she is a recognized regional leader in water law and natural resources. She has been named by her peers as an Oregon “Super Lawyer” based on her experience and accomplishments. She is a frequent speaker on water law, natural resources, watershed management and alternative dispute resolution. She also has written several articles about water laws and rights.


The Republican River Water Conservation District is holding its regular quarterly meeting Thursday, January 14, at the Burlington Community and Education Center, 340 S. 14th. It is set for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Among the agenda items is discussing and receiving input from the public regarding construction of the compact compliance pipeline. The district is seeking input on whether or not to proceed with construction before the pipeline actually receives approval from the Republican River Compact Administration. Kansas and Nebraska each have issues that have been difficult to resolve. Regular public comment is set for 1 p.m. The board is scheduled to vote on authorizing change of use for North Fork surface water rights under lease from the Yuma County Water Authority. It also will discuss applying for change of use on water rights purchased on the South Fork, among other items. Assistant State Conservationist Tim Carney will make a presentation. For further information, please contact RRWCD General Manager Stan Murphy at 332-3553, e-mail at, or visit the web site at

More Republican River Basin coverage here and here.

Republican River Basin: Yuma County Water Authority still in the hunt for North Fork surface water rights

January 2, 2010

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From The Yuma Pioneer (Tony Rayl):

The YCWA Board voted at its December meeting, last week, to move ahead with purchasing the water rights of the Curt Soehner family on the Laird Ditch. YCWA Board member Robin Wiley said the district has been able to put aside enough money since voters approved its formation in November 2008, to purchase the last few rights on the North Fork. He said a total of five letters were sent out to owners of senior surface water rights to see if they were interested in selling those rights. The YCWA has heard back from a few of them, but so far Soehner has been the only one willing to pursue selling the senior rights. Wiley said the amount being offered to the Soehners is about two-thirds of what those involved in the original lawsuit received. Soehner was the only senior water rights holder on the Laird Ditch that was not involved in the lawsuit…

The lawsuit, which threatened to shut down all high-capacity wells within 20 miles of the North Fork and its tributaries — all of it located in Yuma County — led to the formation of the YCWA and the $20 million purchase of senior water rights from owners of the Laird Ditch and the Pioneer Ditch Company. The formation of the YCWA and a $15 million expenditure toward the senior surface water rights were approved by Yuma County voters. (The remaining $5 million came from a 20-year lease of those rights by the Republican River Water Conservation District.)

More Republican River Basin coverage here and here.

Ogallala Aquifer: USGS warns of gradual increase of contaminants

July 19, 2009

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Here’s a release from the USGS via (Midland/Odessa):

Water produced by the High Plains aquifer, which provides water to eight states, is generally acceptable for human consumption, irrigation, and livestock watering, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study highlighted at the summer meeting of the Western States Water Council in Park City, Utah.

The study warns, however, that heavy use of water for irrigation and public supply and leakage down inactive irrigation wells are resulting in long-term gradual increases in concentrations of contaminants such as nitrate and dissolved solids from the water table to deeper parts of the aquifer where drinking-water wells are screened.

“This increase in contaminant concentrations over time has important implications for the long-term sustainability of the High Plains aquifer as a source of drinking water,” said lead author of the USGS study, Dr. Jason Gurdak. “Once contaminated, the aquifer is unlikely to be remediated quickly because of slow rates of contaminant degradation and slow groundwater travel times in the aquifer; deep water in some parts of the aquifer is about 10,000 years old.”

The High Plains aquifer, also known as the Ogallala aquifer, is the Nation’s most heavily used groundwater resource. The majority is used for irrigation, but nearly two million people also depend on the aquifer as a source of drinking water. The eight states that use water from the High Plains aquifer include Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Nebraska hosts the largest segment and square mileage of the water source.

USGS scientists analyzed water for more than 180 chemical compounds and physical properties in about 300 private domestic wells, 70 public-supply wells, 50 irrigation wells, and 160 shallow monitoring wells sampled between 1999 and 2004. The study also assessed the transport of water and contaminants from land surface to the water table and deeper zones used for supply, to predict changes in concentrations over time.

Currently, water quality is generally acceptable for drinking. More than 85 percent of the 370 wells used for drinking met federal drinking-water standards. Nitrate, which is derived mostly from human sources such as fertilizer applications, was greater than the federal drinking-water standard of 10 parts per million in about six percent of the drinking-water wells. None of the pesticides or volatile organic compounds detected exceeded drinking-water standards.

”Most of the contaminants that exceeded drinking-water standards were of natural origin such as arsenic, dissolved solids, fluoride, iron, and manganese,” Gurdak said.

The report, “Water Quality in the High Plains Aquifer, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming, 1999–2004,” U.S. Geological Survey Circular 2009-1337, is available online at

More Coyote Gulch coverage here and here.

Republican River Compact: River referee report due June 30

June 22, 2009

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From the Nebraska Journal-Star:

The deadline for a Republican River referee’s report on a water dispute between Kansas and Nebraska has been extended to June 30. The two states are trying to use the report on nonbinding arbitration to resolve Kansas’ claim of more than $70 million in damages. That’s Kansas’ estimate of the damages Nebraska caused by using more than its share of water for irrigation over a period of several years and violating the terms of the Republican River Compact. Brian Dunnigan, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said the word from Colorado-based water expert Karl Dreher is that he will need only one extension of the original June 17 deadline. “So we think we’re going to hear on June 30,” Dunnigan said. After that, the states will have until July 30 to decide how to respond to the arbitrator’s decision.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here and here.

Republican River compliance pipeline: Project may be headed to binding arbitration

April 18, 2009

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Here’s a recap of the April 9 meeting of the Republican River Water Conservation District Board of Directors, from Tony Rayl writing for the Yuma Pioneer. From the article:

No significant progress, in regards to getting Kansas and Nebraska to approve the [compliance pipeline] project, has been made in the past few months, it was reported during the Republican River Water Conservation District Board of Directors regular quarterly meeting, last Thursday, April 9, in Yuma. A teleconference with Kansas and Nebraska is set for Tuesday, April 28, for a special RRCA meeting. Colorado will ask for approval for the proposed compact compliance pipeline. If Kansas and Nebraska reject it, as expected, Colorado will move to the arbitration stage.

If not approved, the next step would be arbitration. The system is set up so it is “non-binding” arbitration, meaning the states do not have to adhere to the ruling. It is a step taken, though, in an effort to resolve the issue without going to the U.S. Supreme Court. Colorado, though, is willing to take the pipeline to binding arbitration, meaning the arbitrator’s decision carries weight. “We have offered binding arbitration but Kansas has rejected it, at least initially,” [Alexandra Davis, the assistant director for water for the Department of Natural Resources] said. “We were willing to go to binding arbitration.”[...]

The Republican River Water Conservation District continues to lay the groundwork for the pipeline, while waiting for RRCA approval. Engineer Jim Slattery told the board last Thursday that work continues on easements, an application for a permit from the Corps of Engineers has been submitted, and the district also is dealing with a minor issue with the Colorado Ground Water Commission in regards to “co-mingling” wells. Slattery told the board he has been told bidding among contractors is still competitive due to a slowdown in projects, but it might not last much longer.

The district itself is not moving too far ahead until issues are resolved between the three states. The RRWCD is taking the stance that it developed the pipeline project on the assumption that delivering water to the North Fork would bring Colorado into compliance with the pipeline. However, Kansas asserts Colorado is not in compliance in the South Fork sub-basin, and the pipeline to the North Fork will not address that. Therefore, the district definitely wants that issue resolved, and approval from the RRCA, before building the pipeline. The RRWCD also has requested assurances from state officials that Colroado will drain Bonny Reservoir, or take other actions equivalent to draining Bonny, if Kansas is found to be correct in its interpretation of the South Fork issue.

Also, the Sandhills Groundwater Management District, where the wells for the pipeline are located, has stated it will not hold a hearing on the RRWCD’s request to export water from the management district until the RRCA has approved the augmentation plan.

A $60,000 million, 2-percent interest loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board was approved by the Colorado Legislature last year, to the RRWCD for the pipeline. The RRWCD does not want to take the risk of borrowing that money until it is certain the pipeline is a go for all parties. Technically, the RRWCD has two years from the date of the loan contract to borrow and complete the project, according to legal representation. The CWCB staff has told the RRWCD it could obtain further time if necessary. However, in light of the budget crisis, the district would like to get going before the end of the year.

More coverage of the meeting from the Yuma Pioneer (Tony Rayl):

The water level at Bonny Reservoir continues to be an issue with the Republican River Water Conservation District. Dave Keeler, the state’s water commissioner for the Republican River Basin, gave a Bonny update to the RRWCD Board during its regular quarterly meeting, last Thursday in Yuma. He said measurements show that currently there is an extra 3,992 acre feet of storage in Bonny, which is considered “out of priority” water. As to when that water will be released, Keeler referred to State Engineer Dick Wolfe. Among the main considerations in releasing the water is the ability to maximize the amount released getting to the gage in Benkleman, Nebraska. It sounds like there will not be a release until the fall. However, there is a live stream flow in the South Fork of the Republican River reaching the Benkelman gage, and there is little irrigation right now. Board Member Eugene Bauerle said the district should consider asking the state to make a release now, since conditions are good for the water getting to the gage.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here and here.

Ogallala (High Plains) Aquifer has dropped 9% in 60 years

April 14, 2009

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From the Houston Chronicle: “The U.S. Geological Survey says in a report issued Tuesday that by 2007, the aquifer has dropped a foot on average in Nebraska since the early 1950s…The aquifer supplies about 30 percent of the nation’s groundwater used for irrigation. And the USGS says the aquifer provides drinking water to more than 80 percent of the people who live above it.”

From the McCook Daily Gazette:

…it’s easy to forget just how big, and important, the aquifer is, and to take it for granted. Covering 174,000 square miles under Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming, The High Plains Aquifer is the primary source of drinking water for most of us and provides the life-giving liquid that makes one fourth of the United States agricultural production possible. Although extensive irrigation has caused the aquifer to decline, some of the same technology that made irrigation possible, such as the highly efficient systems produced by Valmont right here in McCook, is making the most efficient use of the valuable resource of water.

A complete copy of the report is available at and an abbreviated version is at

More coverage from the Omaha World-Herald:

The total amount of drainable water in the aquifer in 2007 was about 2.9 billion acre-feet, a decline of about 270 million acre-feet since before development, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a report Tuesday…The High Plains aquifer, also popularly known as the Ogallala Aquifer, is a nationally important water resource that likes under some 174,000 square miles in parts of eight western states—Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here.


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