Western Kansas is running out of water, K-State grad students research conservation

The Ogallala Aquifer is running out of water. Graduate students have been researching ways to renew the water source as a part of the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program. (Photo Courtesy of Melanie Derby)

The Ogallala Aquifer, an underground body of water that spans eight states and provides irrigation water to most of western Kansas, is running out of water, Moises Gutierrez, doctorate student in chemical engineering, said.

“It will take about 1,000 years to regenerate,” Gutierrez said. “In order to have a sustainable aquifer right there, the water use has to be reduced to about 20% of what is being used right now. The aquifer may run out of water by the year 2070.”

Graduate students at K-State seek to help the Ogallala Aquifer by doing research as a part of the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program, Melanie Derby, associate professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering, said. The program is focused on preparing graduate students for future careers and building skills like communication and interdisciplinary research.

“Our research focus is on the Ogallala Aquifer and integration of engineering and social science, kind of at the fundamental level,” Derby, the principal investigator for the project, said. “So, we’re not doing necessarily field scale work. We’re doing lab scale work; we’re doing modeling. We’re trying to create new knowledge that can benefit agriculture in the Ogallala Aquifer area.”

Miller-Klugesherz, doctorate student in sociology, said the economies of western Kansas communities are at risk.

“The grocery store will leave,” Miller-Klugesherz said. “The post office will leave. Your kids will leave because there’s no future; I mean, that’s the biggest thing here. It’s like there’s so few kids growing up to be producers or to work in irrigation. They tell their kids like the water is gonna be gone. This type of farming isn’t sustainable.”

Gutierrez said his research focuses on how to use less water in irrigation and how to conserve water in the soil.

“We start using bacteria,” Gutierrez said. “The one we are trying to use is a very common bacteria that you can find in any soil, but at optimum condition, they can produce biosurfactants that can alter the water dynamics in soil. … With that biosurfactant, what it does is, kind of, reduces the tension, the water tension, and makes the soil more wettable. So, having the soil more wettable means that the water’s going to stay or attach more to the soil and reduce the evaporation.”

Miller-Klugesherz said there are different power struggles, attitudes and interests at play when trying to implement the technical solutions developed by the program.

“My research question is: what is the relationship between absentee ownership and pumping rent rates?” Miller-Klugesherz said.

Miller-Klugesherz said absentee owners, people who own farmland but live in a different ZIP code, different state or different country are common in Kansas, with 44% of Kansas farmland being rented.

“There’s tons of technical solutions of working with the soil and covering crops and all this stuff,” Miller-Klugesherz said. “I mean, that stuff’s all great but if someone, an owner … doesn’t [experience] the effects, then maybe, what’s the point?” 

Gutierrez said the interdisciplinary aspect of the program helped him think more openly about other departments.

“I never saw the scientific impact in society until we started seeing the social part,” Gutierrez said. 

Derby said the National Science Foundation is a federal agency whose mission is to advance science and engineering. NSF provides funding for NRT programs through a competitive grant process.

“So, at K-State, we got a team of faculty from three colleges together, and we applied,” Derby said. “All of the submissions were reviewed by a panel of peers. It’s called the merit review process or panel review process, and this is something that NSF is really known for. So they get other people working in these areas to review the proposals, and we were selected for funding.”

Derby said she believes water conservation is very important in the state of Kansas, and this project helps fulfill the K-State land grant mission.

“It was something that we were passionate about: water conservation and sustainability,” Derby said. “How can we do research to help these communities be more resilient, right? There’s a lot of factors: economic factors, water stress and, kind of, having new knowledge that will help those communities was important.”