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Ogallala Aquifer

Ogallala Aquifer in 2014.

Ever since the article appeared on the front page of the Journal Star, we have received numerous phone calls, emails and in-person visits from worried people asking us: “Is our aquifer really drying up? What can we do about it?”

There are valid issues in the article ("Water levels drop in aquifer," Nov. 14) that must be addressed in each of the states impacted by declining groundwater supplies. However, we can reassure our fellow citizens that in almost all of Nebraska, our water supply is doing fine. We start with this statistic: According to U.S. Geological Survey reports, Nebraska’s High Plains aquifer has experienced a net loss of only one-tenth of 1 percent of its volume of water, which in 2009 was 2.040 billion acre-feet.

Nebraska’s vast groundwater supplies are stored in subsurface rock formations (i.e., the aquifers) and are being carefully managed by our local Natural Resources Districts in conjunction with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. Great credit is also due to the many farmers and producers who are using new technologies and conservation methods to help sustain those waters.

The Nov. 14 article accurately describes dire situations in parts of eastern Colorado and western Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. There, groundwater pumping has been the culprit in drying up nearby streams and rivers. Here in Nebraska, we also have a few areas of concern. Pumpkin Creek in the panhandle has dried up, impacting the surface water rights held by the Spear T Ranch. In the Republican River drainage, stream depletions are continuing despite regulations, metering, and new technologies.

But, as a whole, Nebraska’s groundwater situation is enviable, not just nationally but internationally. We have more than 100 years of hydrogeologic research conducted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Conservation and Survey Division  and the USGS. That research has proven the connection between groundwater and surface water.

Those scientific findings were then communicated to the Legislature, which has passed a series of enlightened groundwater management acts, beginning in 1975 when the NRDs were given the authority to manage groundwater, continuing through the 2004 Integrated Management Act and coming into the present with the creation of the Water Sustainability Fund, managed by the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission.

A particularly significant geologic finding is that Nebraska’s portion of the water supply in the High Plains Aquifer is roughly two-thirds of the total amount in storage in the eight-state area of the aquifer. Furthermore, the rock units that make up Nebraska’s portion of the aquifer (the Arikaree, Ogallala and Broadwater formations and the glacial-age sands and gravels) are cut off from the aquifer to the south by the Republican River.

So it is not true that groundwater pumped onto a field in Texas lowers the water table in Nebraska. Nor is it true that our aquifer groundwater flows into the states to the south of us. Just as significant, we are extremely fortunate to have the Sandhills, which overlie the Ogallala formation and are therefore the perfect conduit for recharging the aquifer whenever it rains on those lovely hills.

In Nebraska, groundwater belongs to all the citizens of the state for their beneficial use. Producers, legislators, elected and appointed representatives and everyday people are working hard to ensure that our water riches will remain abundant, providing that beneficial use not just for our children and grandchildren but also for our descendants far into the future.

As noted by Dr. Kenneth Cassman, UNL's Robert Daugherty Professor of Agronomy: “Most of the world’s major aquifers that support irrigated agriculture are heavily over-appropriated. Only in Nebraska do we have a system that has proven effective at sustaining aquifer levels and supporting a vibrant irrigated agriculture. The reason for this success is the NRD system that places responsibility and authority for protecting groundwater in the hands of local citizens. This is unique in the entire world, and truly visionary.”

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Jim Goeke is a Professor Emeritus at UNL’s Conservation and Survey Division. Karen Amen is a board member of the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District and a commissioner on Nebraska's Natural Resources Commission.


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