Depleting aquifer could affect crop growth, food supplies

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Today’s average American farmer feeds about 155 people, according to the Center for Food Integrity’s education program Farmers Feed US.

One of a farmer’s most precious and essential resources, however, may be in shortage in the future, which could lead to a sharp increase in food prices.

Years of drought have put a strain on the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest aquifer systems in the world, causing it to deplete at an alarming rate. The aquifer is a massive underground system covering more than 170,000 square miles across eight states, including Kansas. It plays a crucial role for agriculture in the High Plains Water District.

John Floros, dean of the College of Agriculture, said he believes it is very important to educate consumers of how their food is grown and how the depletion of the aquifer will affect them.

“I think very few people understand how much water we use in agriculture and very few people connect their food to water,” Floros said. “Food means a lot of water use.”

The aquifer is of critical concern for farmers and ranchers in the High Plains, as it has seen continual decreases in its water levels since established in 1899. As water levels drop, it will affect food production for consumers in the future.

As an unconfined aquifer, virtually all of the Ogallala Aquifer’s recharge comes from rainwater and snow melt. Less rain can mean the water in the aquifer isn’t replaced as quickly as it is being used, which gradually depletes the aquifer.

Important for future

Floros said he has confidence in the research conducted and in the leadership positions’ ability to find ways to extend the life of the Ogallala considerably. Doing so is the key to the survival of generations to come, he said.

“If we don’t do something today for water, it will affect the lives of people a hundred years from now,” Floros said.

The aquifer provides water for residential, industrial and agricultural use. For decades, farmers have found groundwater to be a necessity for everyday living, raising livestock and growing crops.

Approximately 95 percent of the groundwater is used for irrigated agriculture according to the High Plains Water District, a leading conservation group in charge of preservation and waste elimination of the water in the High Plains region and the Ogallala Aquifer.

Since drought conditions have continued, it has forced farmers to pump more water from the aquifer to irrigate their cropland to make up for the lack of natural moisture. Continued use of the aquifer have caused a long-term drop in water levels and some areas have now reached dangerously low amounts of water.

According to a study co-conducted by Dave Steward, professor of civil engineering, if irrigation trends continue, 69 percent of the groundwater stored in the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas will be depleted within 50 years.

Dealing with issues as complex as the Ogallala Aquifer requires multidisciplinary teams and that’s where K-State really shines,” Steward said. “We’ve got a lot of expertise to study integrative interdisciplinary problems like this and help society get information that is useful.”

Vance Ehmke, farmer and seed producer from Dighton, Kan., said he has personally witnessed the drought conditions and its effect on crop production. Ehmke said he understands the requirement to have irrigated land in the High Plains, but knows there are more conservative options for future investments in maintaining the aquifer.

Ehmke said drip irrigation, which is a form of irrigation that applies water straight to the ground in order to replenish aquifers while maintaining crops, could be an avenue that the agricultural industry pursues in the near future.

“There is a lot of interest in research in going to drip irrigation, which is the ultimate in terms of efficacy but the cost of drip irrigation is horrific,” Ehmke said.

Ehmke said he understands the importance of taking action to improve the Ogallala.

“If you subtract water out and envision western Kansas as a dryland economy, it will be a real rude awaking,” Ehmke said.

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