Solving puzzle of Ogallala Aquifer sustainability

Scientists offer alternative solutions to conserving water resources in High Plains Aquifer region.

THE High Plains Aquifer, also known as the Ogallala Aquifer, currently supplies 30% of the nation's irrigated groundwater, and although it has an adequate water supply, the future availability of groundwater is uncertain (Feedstuffs, Sept. 2).

"Already, there are regions in Texas and Kansas where farmers can't pump enough water to meet the demands of their crops," Michigan State University ecosystem scientist Bruno Basso said. "If current withdrawal rates continue, such depletion will expand across extensive portions of the central and southern areas served by the aquifer during the next few decades."

In an article, Michigan State University department of geological sciences faculty Basso, Anthony Kendall and David Hyndman recommended comprehensive adoption of research technologies and government policies that reward farmers for adopting soil and water conservation strategies in order to advance the High Plains Aquifer region toward a more sustainable future.

"The Future of Agriculture over the Ogallala Aquifer: Solutions to Grow Crops More Efficiently with Limited Water" was published in the December issue of Earth's Future, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

In a simple world, selecting crops for water requirements rather than economics could be one way to improve water supplies in regions that struggle with water shortages such as the Ogallala Aquifer. Yet, many complex factors, especially economics, are determining elements in the final crop selection decision.

Therefore, in a region that grows more than $35 billion in crops each year, researching alternatives to increase the amount of crop produced with less water will be essential for feeding a growing population and maintaining the local economy.

Former irrigation systems lost as much as 30% of water before it even hit the ground, so improved technologies have been a welcomed innovation in recent years.

Adopting efficient irrigation technology alone will not shrink a farming operation's water footprint, however; it is important to also properly manage the system to enhance the capability of the technology.

In addition, growers who utilize precision agriculture strategies could eliminate variations within each field to make better use of all resources. The combination of global positioning system and site-specific management could deliver the optimal amount of water and nutrients at the right time to the right location.

The article says the recent drought raised the focus on water management to the same degree as soil management and adds that the U.S. Department of Agriculture needs to expand the role of its water management service to the same level as the soil conservation program.

Furthermore, it says farm policy should encourage water use efficiency. Current farm policy requires a crop to be managed either as fully irrigated or as dryland. Under mandates for full irrigation insurance, a certain amount of water must be applied over the growing season, which rejects deficit irrigation approaches that could save a significant amount of water.

"We emphasize the critical role of science as a foundation for policies that can help mitigate the disaster that is occurring across this region," Basso said. "Policies solidly grounded in science are critical to ensure long-term sustainability and environmental integrity for future generations."

While the use of yield mapping is on the rise, accurately utilizing and interpreting the data collected could be the key in selecting the ideal best management practices for each operation that improve water use efficiency without sacrificing yields.

In their opinion, the authors said policy-makers need to leverage land-grant university agricultural extension programs and trusted institutions to assist farmers in disseminating the data and employing crop models to quantify the value of different management strategies that are best suited for each farm.

Volume:85 Issue:52

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