Ogallala Aquifer Photo

A Center Pivot Sprinkler Over the Ogallala Aquifer

  • The Ogallala is the nation’s largest aquifer.
  • It is part of a slightly larger aquifer system known as the High Plains Aquifer.
  • It underlies parts of 8 Great Plains states, or 174,000 square miles.
  • It is the sole source of water in most of the western plains region.
  • The geologic formation was created 5 million years ago, when rivers originating in the mountains to the west carried erosion onto the plains.
  • The Ogallala waters 30% of U.S. irrigated crops.
  • It feeds streams and rivers once known as The Ladder of Rivers.
  • The Ladder made trade and travel possible all way back to Paleolithic times.

    The Cheyenne Were Last Tribe to Depend on Ladder of Rivers in Western Kansas

    The Cheyenne Were Last Tribe to Depend on Ladder of Rivers in Western Kansas

  • But since irrigation began, in the 1940s, hundreds of miles of these streams and rivers have dried up.
  • Large parts of central Kansas and north Texas no longer have enough aquifer water to sustain irrigation.
  • According to a Kansas State University study, if current withdrawal rates continue, 69% of the aquifer’s water will be gone in 50 years.
  • The aquifer recharges at less than 1 inch per year. In Kansas, irrigators are allowed to extract many times that amount.
  • According to the KSU study, “once depleted, the aquifer would take an average of 500-1300 years to refill.”
  • In a 2009 study, 14% of wells  tested by the U.S. Geological Survey contained one or more agricultural pesticide.
  • In 5% of the wells, nitrates from chemical fertilizers equaled or exceeded EPA safety standards.
  • High concentrations of nitrates in infants’ drinking water deprive their blood of oxygen, causing blue-baby syndrome, a serious threat to lifelong health and fatal if left untreated.
  • U.S. Corn and Ethanol Policy Underwrites Aquifer Depletion

    U.S. Corn and Ethanol Policy Underwrites Aquifer Depletion

    Irrigated corn accounts for the largest water use in the aquifer region. In parts of Texas, this amounts to 22 inches of irrigation water each growing season.

  • The federal government Farm Program subsidizes corn farmers regardless of whether they live in Iowa, where it rains enough to grow it, or in western Kansas, where it must be irrigated.
  • One-third of the nation’s corn becomes feed for livestock.
  • Ethanol accounts for another 40%.
  • In 2005, Congress put a Renewable Fuel Standard into place, and then expanded that standard in 2007, mandating that increasing amounts of ethanol be mixed with the nation’s gasoline each year.
  • Because corn is a primary feedstock for ethanol, this mandate caused corn prices to skyrocket and the nation’s corn acreage to expand by 20%.