U.S. Water News Online
ULYSSES, Kan. -- In recent weeks, this oil-and-gas town of
6,000 has been looking into buying water -- perhaps $190,000 worth of
The Ogallala aquifer, the vast underground pool that feeds faucets
across the Great Plains, is running low, forcing farmers and towns to
find other sources of water and pay dearly for it, too.
"Out here, water is like gold," Mayor Ed Wiltse said as he ran his
hands over a chart of the town's faltering wells. "Without it, we
The Ogallala aquifer is the world's largest underground water
system, irrigating one-third of the nation's corn crops and providing
drinking water to Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma,
South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. It contains enough water to cover
the entire United States to a depth of one and one-half feet.
But because of heavy usage, some water experts have pronounced it
one of the fastest-disappearing aquifers in the world.
Now, after generations in which water from the Ogallala was
treated as if it were an inexhaustible resource, farmers, cities,
states and the federal government are talking seriously about
In some places across the country, the aquifer is flush with
water. Near Nebraska's Platte River, for instance, streams quickly
recharge its underground channels. But Kansas hydrologists estimate
that around Ulysses, the aquifer may have only 25 years left if
current usage continues.
Since the 1940s, Ulysses' wells have drawn from the Ogallala
aquifer. But Ulysses sits in a stretch of the Corn Belt where the
water table has dropped 25 feet in the past decade. Once-wild rivers
have turned to gravel, and streams stopped running years ago. And
after years of drought, it has been a long time since anyone thought
the sky might water the crops.
Some farmers in Ulysses and beyond have started switching from
corn to cotton, which needs less water. But for drinking water and
water for industry, towns have little choice but to spend millions to
move water from miles away.
"We've just gone through a four-year drought," Wiltse said. "So
now we're having to go further out from the city to purchase water
rights. This time, we're not only paying to buy more water, but we'll
be paying for underground water pipelines and booster pumps."
Similarly, the city of Lubbock, Texas, began buying up new water
rights last year. The municipal water authority will spend $100
million to supply the town with water for the next century.
"This ain't the time to play politics," said Lubbock City
Councilman Gary Boren. "It's one of those things that if you don't
have it, you'll pay any price to get it."
After nearly a century of state policy that doled out water rights
to farmers almost indiscriminately, Kansas has virtually banned any
new uses of water along the state's western edge. A group of
concerned growers in Thomas County, near the Colorado line, is
considering an across-the-board 10 percent reduction in water use.
And last month, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius proposed to pay farmers to
stop watering their crops.
"Once that water is used, it's not going to come back," said
hydrologist Brownie Wilson, who monitors water declines at the
University of Kansas in Lawrence. "Whether it's better to use it now
or save it for tomorrow is where you get the debate."
The federal government is also trying to take action. This year's
agriculture appropriations bill acknowledges the aquifer could go dry
within two decades and calls for federal conservation efforts.
"There's an old saying that whiskey's for drinking and water's for
fighting," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. "Water is the lifeblood of
this region. There's no question that it is our biggest policy
However, the National Corn Growers Association and the American
Farm Bureau oppose federal regulation of groundwater, arguing that
water rights are a state issue.
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