Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
USA TODAY - What's the matter with Kansas? The farm state is running out of water over the long term, reports a water study released Monday, which found its aquifer could be 70% depleted by 2060.
Kansas' 1st Congressional District generates the most farming income nationwide, and it relies on the High Plains Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches from Texas to South Dakota, for irrigation water. Thirty percent pumped out, the aquifer will probably be 70% empty by 2060, concludes the Kansas State study, even with increasingly efficient irrigation practices.
That's bad news for corn and cattle, says the century-long look ahead led by Kansas State University civil engineer David Steward. Even with increasing irrigation efficiency by corn growers, researchers find that agricultural productivity will decline in the breadbasket region after the 2040s, as wells run out of water at present rates of pumping. "We aren't telling people what to do, but we are telling family farmers who want to hand down their farms to the next generation what steps they might take to make it possible," Steward says.
That means pumping less might be a good idea, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesanalysis finds. The research relied on thousands of historical farm, rain and aquifer pumping rate records dating back to 1981 to estimate future water usage. A 20% drop in pumping rates would push off the decline in production of corn and cattle in western Kansas to 2070, the study concludes. An 80% drop would make use of the aquifer sustainable indefinitely, given its natural recharge rate from rainfall. Such drops would cut agricultural production, producing only 12% as many cattle with an 80% pumping cut, down about 500,000 head of cattle.
The forecast results echo past studies looking at water, says groundwater expert Jim Butler of Kansas Geological Survey in Lawrence. He expressed caution about attaching "great significance" to the exact dates predicted in the study, given future uncertainties. However, Butler agreed with its central finding, saying, "We are depleting the High Plains Aquifer at current rates of withdrawal, and we must significantly reduce pumping if we are to extend the lifetime of the resource."
USA TODAY sent a copy of the study for comment to the Kansas Department of Agriculture, upon request from the agency, but did not receive a response afterward.
Water wells will start to be impacted by declines in the aquifer across broad regions, roughly a third of Kansas, by 2025, at present pumping rates, Steward says. "We are already seeing some local effects, but these drops will be broad ones."