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Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment (KCARE)

About the Ogallala Aquifer

When springtime storms hit Kansas, the accompanying deluges can clog storm drains, erode hillsides, or flood basements. When facing a failing sump pump, it’s hard to imagine needing – or wanting – more water. But that’s the dilemma facing the eight states that overlie the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground repository of fresh water used to keep farms and ranches producing the food to nourish millions.

And when geologists say “vast”, they mean it: the aquifer covers about 175,000 square miles under parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Created through a series of events a million years ago, it sits on top of a layer of bedrock in a mix of clay, silt, sand, and gravel, forming what could be described as an underground sponge. It holds so much water that, if the aquifer was drained, the water it contains would cover the entire United States … under a foot and a half of water. While these statistics are staggering, the Ogallala Aquifer is not infinite; in fact, with current water use, researchers worry that this giant subterranean sponge will deplete faster and faster until there’s nothing left.

In Kansas, the Ogallala underlies 38 percent of the state, according to the US Geological Survey. Like many other states in the High Plains, agriculture forms the backbone of the economy, with Kansas producing much of the nation’s beef cattle, corn, wheat, grain sorghum and soybeans. Agriculture relies on water, and most of that water is pumped to farms and ranches from the Ogallala Aquifer. This water does not replenish at the same rate it’s used, and most estimate that it would take 6,000 years to refill the aquifer once it is depleted.

Recognizing the importance of the aquifer and its life-giving role in the region, K-State is a key member of the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, a cooperative project between the USDA-ARS, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, West Texas A&M University, and Kansas State University. The team focuses on innovative management technologies appropriate for the region, to enhance and sustain rural economies. Some of the issues this project addresses are related to water management practices in cropping and integrated crop-livestock systems, as well as irrigation management and automation for increased water use efficiency.