Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Nov. 9 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will invest $8 million in the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative (OAI) in fiscal 2016 to help farmers and ranchers conserve billions of gallons of water annually while strengthening agricultural operations.
The eight-state Ogallala Aquifer has suffered in recent years from increased periods of drought and declining water resources.
"USDA's Ogallala Aquifer Initiative helps landowners build resilience in their farms and ranches and better manage water use in this thirsty region," Vilsack said. "Since 2011, USDA has invested $74 million in helping more than 1,600 agricultural producers conserve water on 341,000 acres through this initiative."
The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest aquifer in the U.S. and includes nearly all of Nebraska and large sections of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. It is the primary water source for the High Plains region. Covering nearly 174,000 square miles, it supports the production of nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the U.S. and supplies 30% of all water used for irrigation in the U.S., USDA said.
Water levels in the region are dropping at an unsustainable rate, making targeted conservation even more important. From 2011 to 2013, the aquifer's overall water level dropped by 36.0 million acre-feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) supports targeted, local efforts to conserve the quality and quantity of water in nine targeted focus areas through the OAI, adding two new focus areas for fiscal 2016, while continuing support for seven ongoing projects. These projects include improving the efficiency of irrigation systems; building soil health by using cover crops and no-till practices that allow the soil to hold water longer and buffer roots from higher temperatures, and implementing prescribed grazing to relieve pressure on stressed vegetation.
NRCS analysis of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) conservation projects in the region, including those implemented through OAI, estimated reduced water withdrawals of at least 1.5 million acre-feet, or 489 billion gal. of water, from 2009 through 2013 and an energy savings equivalent of almost 33 million gal. of diesel fuel due to reduced irrigation.
This investment in the Ogallala region expands on USDA's substantial efforts to help producers address water scarcity and water quality issues on agricultural lands. Between 2012 and 2014, across the U.S., NRCS invested more than $1.5 billion in financial and technical assistance to help producers implement conservation practices that improve water use efficiency and build long term health of working crop, pasture and rangelands.