Water levels in a vital western Kansas aquifer system have fallen drastically in recent years, and scientists who plan to take new readings this winter year don't expect things to be any different this time.
Last year, Kansas Geological Survey researchers found the groundwater levels in the High Plains Aquifer had dropped an average of about 3.5 feet, the second-largest single-year decline they had ever recorded, the Lawrence Journal-World (http://bit.ly/1dyFyLC ) reported. That was exceeded only by the average 4.25-foot decline the year prior.
"I've only been doing this about eight years, and historically it's declined year after year," said Brett Wedel, manager of the KGS water-level-data acquisition program. "Some areas are worse than others. Two years ago was definitely the most drastic drop I've seen."
Geological Survey crews and the Kansas Division of Water Resources plan to measure roughly 1,400 wells in the aquifer region of central and western Kansas, from Colby and Goodland in the north to Liberal and Garden City in the south.
Most of the wells draw from the High Plains aquifer, a large network of underground water-bearing rocks that stretches from South Dakota to Texas. It includes the Ogallala aquifer in western Kansas, the Great Bend Prairie aquifer in west-central Kansas and the Equus Beds aquifer north and west of Wichita.
The aquifers are the primary source of water for cities and industries in western Kansas, but agriculture is the heaviest user of the water -- especially since the invention in 1948 of center-pivot irrigation.
An extended drought over the Central Plains over the past five years has forced farmers to rely even more on irrigation. That has drawn the water levels down 2 to 3 feet each year, while nature replaces only a few inches of that annually.
The annual data collection is intended to help landowners and other water users manage groundwater resources. Most people acknowledge, however, that those management plans will only buy time.
Unless farming practices in the region -- or the weather -- change dramatically, water in the aquifer eventually will run out, Wedel said.
"At some point it no longer becomes a continual process," he said. "You're going to eventually bleed that resource dry."