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Drought is speeding up depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer so much that a University of Kansas researcher calls the problem "as pressing or more pressing" than it ever has been before.
Eight university scientists recently spent a week in western Kansas to measure the water levels of 500 wells that draw water from the aquifer. They discovered the water level is dropping faster than it did in the last decade.
"What happens when it gets dry, people pump more, so they're drawing on it more," said Rex Buchanan, associate director of the Kansas Geological Survey. "These numbers clearly show the issue of depletion of the Ogallala is out there, and it's as pressing or more pressing as it has been."
The Ogallala stretches from northern Texas to South Dakota and is a major source of water on the High Plains. In addition to the university study, the state's Division of Water Resources tested 700 other wells in the area, reaching similar findings.
Rural irrigation in western Kansas has been drawing water from the aquifer faster than nature can replace it, and in some areas the aquifer has dried out.
Two years ago, then-Gov. Bill Graves set the goal of zero depletion of the aquifer in Kansas, but farmers and western Kansas lawmakers opposed that goal.
Sen. Stan Clark, R-Oakley, said the study shows the need to decrease water use before the aquifer situation gets worse.
"Quite honestly, we need to move to an economy that doesn't require the Ogallala, and we must begin that separation soon," Clark said.
The economy of western Kansas relies heavily on wheat and livestock, two areas of agriculture that require a lot of water. Lately, precipitation totals have been nowhere near what is required.
"We have an economy that's based on receiving 36 inches of rain a year, when they get closer to 20," Clark said.
Rep. Carl Holmes, a Republican from Liberal, served on a legislative committee with Clark that examined the aquifer's administration. He said it's not just the burden of western Kansas to conserve water -- the whole state needs to be involved.
"We've got programs that encourage conservation, and we need to encourage conservation more," Holmes said.
Buchanan, the university researcher, said a detailed analysis of the measurements would be available in late spring.
"I don't think there's any question this is a really crucial issue," Buchanan said. "The changes in irrigation out there are going to have effects across the entire state."