This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.
As a major underground water source, the Ogallala Aquifer plays a key role in the economic vitality of vast stretches of the rural Midwest. The aquifer covers around 225,000 square miles in 8 states from South Dakota to Texas, supplying 30 percent of all U.S. groundwater used for irrigation.
But as with other natural resources that seem inexhaustible, the aquifer is effectively a nonrenewable resource. Demand from agricultural, municipal and industrial development on the Great Plains has meant that water is pumped out of a large portion of the aquifer much more quickly than it can ever be replenished.
To help agricultural producers use this resource as cost-effectively as possible, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) provides permanent funding for the Ogallala Aquifer Program (OAP). This is a consortium established between ARS, Kansas State University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, and West Texas A&M University to conduct studies on water conservation for the Ogallala Aquifer.
The OAP consortium recently won the 2013 USDA Secretary’s Honor Award in the category of enhancing economic vitality and quality of life in rural America for its innovative research and dedication to finding water-saving solutions. The Honor Awards are open to all USDA employees and private citizens in recognition of their contribution to USDA strategic goals, mission objectives, and overall management excellence.
ARS agronomist David Brauer, who works at the ARS Soil and Water Management Research Unit in Bushland, Texas, is the OAP’s hands-on taskmaster. “Sustaining the aquifer is important for rural economies on the Great Plains because every dollar of farm income has a substantial multiplier effect in the community,” he says. “So our research helps preserve the Ogallala Aquifer as a catalyst for economic activity and development, and helps producers determine when and how to maximize returns on each acre-foot of water they use.”
Brauer says that thanks to cutting-edge OAP research, water conservation strategies now include methods for calculating irrigation schedules by assessing a plant’s evapotranspiration needs. “Overall, this has reduced water use from the aquifer by 15 percent, saves $7 per acre in irrigation costs, and potentially affects water use on 6 million crop acres,” Brauer says. “In addition, the use of subsurface irrigation has greatly expanded on the High Plains in the past 10 years. It’s an effective way to get water to plants and lets USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service offer cost-sharing for farmers who install subsurface irrigation systems.”
The scientist notes that findings from the OAP have also been used to support statewide water conservation efforts in the aquifer that avoid putting an undue burden on local economies. Summing up the challenge of the Ogallala Aquifer, Brauer says simply, “We’re trying to figure out the best ways to allocate water use in both space and time.”