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Water + Energy Progress
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The Future of Groundwater in Kansas

4 years ago | Apr 20, 2015
By: Brock Ternes, CEP Intern

When I began interning for the Climate + Energy Project at the start of the year, I took the position knowing that it would improve my understanding of groundbreaking conservation practices that many Kansas farmers and ranchers have adopted with great success. These routines will become increasingly necessary as droughts threaten the High Plains. As many of you know, the availability of groundwater has been a growing problem in Kansas, where the future of the High Plains aquifer is in jeopardy. Research indicates that the aquifer is now 30 percent depleted, and if current rates of extraction continue it will be 69 percent depleted in 50 years (Steward et al. 2013). In 2013, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback called on water specialists to develop a plan to secure the state’s water supply for the next 50 years, stating that "[w]ithout further planning and action we will no longer be able to meet our current needs” (Kansas Water Authority 2014:6).

Groundwater resources are important for most Kansas farmers, ranchers, industries, and households, as the High Plains aquifer supplies 70 percent of all water used in the state (Buchanan et al. 2009). In the western half of the state, where precipitation is usually scarce, groundwater remains "the only reliable source of large volumes of water” (Buchanan and Buddemeier 1993:2). This environmental reality reveals the crucial connection between groundwater dependence and vulnerability to drought. Droughts reduce the amount of surface water that can be recharged into aquifers, but more importantly, communities dependent on aquifers extract more groundwater during dry years to offset the low levels of precipitation (Kenny and Juracek 2013). In fact, roughly half the state’s population relies on groundwater for domestic use, either provided through municipal water supplies or private wells (Buchanan and Buddemeier 1993).

Overall, water availability in the High Plains is projected to become more limited. In addition to the substantial losses predicted to strike the High Plains aquifer, climate modelers project warmer temperatures and less precipitation in Kansas (Brunsell et al. 2010). These looming droughts are particularly problematic because they are expected to be warmer than previous droughts (Wilhite 2014). This forecast implies that the state will require even more groundwater in the future to meet its agricultural, industrial, and residential needs. Increasing groundwater extractions will not be an option for communities overlying the most depleted portions of the High Plains aquifer, which leaves Kansas "extremely vulnerable to the occurrence of drought” (Logan et al. 2010:255).

These challenges make water conservation efforts all the more valuable, and they underscore the importance of the work done by recent Water + Energy Progress Award Winners. Several WEP Award Winners from 2013 and 2014 have been committed to agricultural operations that are hydraulically "best practice.”

These esteemed farmers and ranchers adopt approaches that include dryland and no-till farming,


No-till and water conservation in western Kansas from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

using cover crops,


Living Acres Network: Cover Crops in Western Kansas from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

and subsurface drip irrigation, which have resulted in massive water savings. 

Mark Eitel - Transitioning from Furrow to Subsurface Drip Irrigation from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

If climate projections are accurate, the only way to feasibly farm in western Kansas will be to adopt water conservation practices—now and in the future. Following the examples set by the innovative WEP Award Winners will be completely necessary.



Brunsell, N.A., A.R. Jones, T.L. Jackson, and J.J. Feddema. 2010. "Seasonal Trends in Air Temperature and Precipitation in IPCC AR4 GCM Output for Kansas, USA: Evaluation and Implications.” International Journal of Climatology30:1178-93.

Buchanan, Rex and Robert W. Buddemeier. 1993. Kansas Ground Water: An Introduction to the State’s Water Quantity, Quality, and Management Issues. Lawrence, KS: Kansas Geological Survey.

Buchanan, Rex C. Robert R. Buddemeier, and Brownie Wilson. 2009. "The High Plains Aquifer.” Public Information Circular 18. Lawrence, KS: Kansas Geological Survey.

Kansas Water Authority. 2014. 2014 Annual Report to the Governor and Legislature. Topeka, KS: Kansas Water Office.

Kenny, Joan F. and Kyle E. Juracek. 2013. "Irrigation Trends in Kansas, 1991-2011” USGS Fact Sheet 2013-3094. Reston, VA: USGS.

Logan, K.E., N.A. Brunsell, A.R. Jones, J.J. Feddema. 2010. "Assessing Spatiotemporal Variability of Drought in the US Central Plains.” Journal of Arid Environments74:247-55.

Steward, David R., Paul J. Bruss, Xiaoying Yang, Scott A. Staggenborg, Stephen M. Welch, and Michael D. Apley. 2013. "Tapping Unsustainable Groundwater Stores for Agricultural Production in the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas, Projections to 2110.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(37):E3477-E3486.

Wilhite, Don. 2014. "Drought: Past and Future.” Presented at Drought in the Life, Cultures, and Landscapes of the Great Plains, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, April 2, 2014.


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