Dipping straws into the Ogallala — The Hutchinson News

From The Hutchinson News (Jim Schinstock):

“Pulling a well” was one of the many chores I had growing up on a farm in western Kansas. Usually this involved pulling the pump to the surface, changing the leathers and cleaning the sand screen, then lowering the pump through the pipe back to the water below. Sometimes it involved working on the gears on the windmill head some 20 or 25 feet above the ground. And once in a while we had to change out a pipe that had sprung a leak.

I haven’t pulled a well in over half a century, nor do I miss the experience. But back in those days, we had good sweet water at about 30 feet. Nowadays, wells have gotten deeper because the water table continues to get lower. The same 30-foot well would have to be redrilled to over 100 feet to reach water.

And that is because the Ogallala Aquifer can’t keep up with the demand for water. Since it takes about 480 gallons of water to raise and process a quarter-pound of beef, think of that number the next time you drive by a feedlot or go through a McDonald’s drive-thru.

The Ogallala, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, is an irregular, undulating sponge that soaks up rain and groundwater. The Ogallala holds about 2.9 billion acre-feet of water, roughly the same amount in Lake Huron. About two-thirds of the water lies beneath Nebraska, where the Ogallala is thickest and most saturated. Running south from Nebraska, the Ogallala meanders through seven states to Texas on the south end. All along its course, the Ogallala varies markedly in thickness and saturation levels. If you think of the Ogallala as a milkshake, the question becomes where to put your straws and how deep into the milkshake. Eventually the milkshake is empty.

The culprit in the draining of the Ogallala is irrigation, and the “straws” are all the wells poking into the aquifer. As demand for water exceeds supply, wells become more numerous and deeper. Clovis, New Mexico, currently uses 73 wells to provide less water than 28 wells delivered in 2000. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Many small towns and cities are in danger of, literally, “drying up.”

The eight states impacted by the Ogallala also have different rules for pumping from the aquifer. Texas has no regulations, and users can take as much water as they want, even selling it to others. Nebraska and Oklahoma require “reasonable use and shared rights,” with water rights shared proportionately to acreage. The remaining states – Kansas included – deny new applications and protect existing water rights by seniority.

And the beat goes on. From 2000 to 2008, the Ogallala declined at twice the rate of the previous decade. The aquifer lost, on average, 8.3 million acre-feet of water each year, roughly half the flow of the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon.

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