Could the US plains run out of water?

Jun 23, 2023 | Policy | 0 comments

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Extreme drought conditions are finally reversing damaging water policies that have severely depleted underground sources. Will the political will remain if drought conditions ease?

In the US one of the world’s largest aquifers, the Ogallala Aquifer underneath eight Great Plains states, is declining faster than it is replenishing, as decades of water policy and droughts deplete it. Along the border between Colorado and Kansas, Wallace County has lost more than 80% of the water in the aquifer, with some parts of the county recording falls of up to 7 feet in the past year as extreme drought pushes farmers to irrigate crops more than usual. Decades ago, lawmakers in Kansas created a policy of planned depletion, gradually removing water to support farming. It’s a policy that was reversed last year, when the Kansas Water Authority voted to stop draining the aquifer for agriculture. Kansas policy makers have also recently approved a bill that pushed groundwater districts to reduce water use in the areas with the most severe depletion. The bill has support from groups that don’t always agree such as the Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Livestock Association and Nature Conservancy. While the bill has support from policymakers and others, farmers across Kansas are sceptical, fearing it could pave the way for mandatory water cuts.

The Kansas Geological Survey estimates that the Wallace County district’s portion of the aquifer is used at nine times the rate it’s replenished by rainfall. The Ogallala Aquifer is 300 feet underground under a labyrinth of rock and gravel, meaning the water dripping into its depths today may have fallen as a raindrop a decade ago.  The new bill keeps water conservation decisions in the hands of local water districts, who need to identify the worst affected areas that have fewer than 50 years of viability by 2024 and submit plans for cutting water use by 2026.

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