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Agricultural Water Source at Risk

Ogallala aquifer map

Large areas of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the most important sources of water for agricultural crops in the United States, are at risk of drying up if the aquifer continues to be drained at its current rate.

The Ogallala, also known as the High Plains Aquifer (HPA), spans from Texas to South Dakota and provides water to grow $35 billion in crops each year. However, since the 1950s, when high-volume pumping began, the HPA’s saturated volume has declined by roughly the volume of Lake Erie. ogallala.sized

Alternatives that could halt and reverse the unsustainable use of water in the aquifer were proposed by geological sciences associate professor Bruno Basso and collaborators in research published in December 2013 in the journal Earth’s Future.

“Agriculture could be sustainable across much of the HPA if new science-based management strategies are adopted,” said David Hyndman, geological sciences professor and a co-author of the paper. “Broader adoption of research technologies, such as crop modeling and precision agriculture, can help identify the best management practices to move this region toward sustainability.”

Precision agriculture strategies that combine GPS technologies, unmanned aerial vehicles and crop modeling allow farmers to identify areas that need more water and fertilizer.

In addition, federal crop insurance could be changed. Such insurance currently requires a crop to be managed as either fully irrigated or as dry land. Full irrigation insurance mandates a certain amount of water application over the growing season, disallowing deficit irrigation approaches that could save significant amounts of water.

The researchers believe that policies should address the issue in terms of crop yield – producing more crops per drop of water. They also stress that policies solidly grounded in science are critical to ensure long-term sustainability and environmental integrity.
Geological sciences research associate Anthony Kendall, another paper co-author, said that upgrades in irrigation systems could also reduce water loss from 30 percent to almost zero.

“And careful water management can stop excess water from flooding fields and leaching valuable nutrients from the soil,” he added.

–Val Osowski, College of Natural Science

–Feature photo courtesy of USGS

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