When farmers in Kansas began drilling wells to tap into groundwater in the 1940s and 1950s, they initially thought the water–coming from the massive Ogallala Aquifer, which sprawls over 174,000 square miles in eight states–was an inexhaustible source. Now, studies suggest that the aquifer will be 70% depleted in less than 50 years. So some farmers in the area are now testing technology to help preserve water, and agriculture, as long as possible.
“With the Ogallala Aquifer in decline, it’s not a matter of if it’s going to go dry, it’s when,” says Tom Willis, who owns a farm near Garden City in southwestern Kansas, as well as two ethanol plants in the state. “That puts a severe hardship on my company here.”
Willis wants the farm to last well into the future for his son, and the ethanol plants also rely on local crops to be economically viable. So he decided to participate in a three-year pilot project that the state calls water-technology farms. “I had a very much vested interest in saying, are there technologies out there that allow farmers to be just as productive as they have been, and yet reduce the strain on the aquifer?”
On his farm, sensors now measure how quickly water is drawn from wells, and sensors deep in the soil measure moisture. “To the eye, it may seem like you need to water, but the moisture probe will say you don’t need water yet,” he says. That technology is combined with a precision drip irrigation system that can use as much as 50% less water than standard irrigation. A weather system on the farm measures precipitation, humidity, and wind. He is also experimenting with planting different crops with lower water requirements–wheat, for example, uses far less water than corn.
The farm also uses traditional low-spray nozzles, so Willis and advisors from Kansas State Extension can study how much the shift in technology helps. Willis’s farm is one of 15 water-technology farms in the state.
Farming is responsible for more than 90% of the water that comes from the aquifer. The water in it accumulated slowly over time, and agriculture has sucked it dry much more quickly. “It accumulated over hundreds of thousands of years,” says Keith Gido, a professor at Kansas State University. “So once we have the technology to pump that water out, once it’s applied to crops and it evaporates, then it’s lost. That pool of water that’s underground becomes depleted. Just normal rainfall is not enough to recharge the system.”
That affects not only agriculture, but ecology. In a recent paper, Gido and coauthors documented that across one part of the region above the aquifer, 346 miles of streams have already gone dry, and fish habitat has disappeared.
The challenge is large: the states that can access the aquifer have no coordinated plan to save it. And even if farmers implement state of the art technology to save water, they’re prolonging the inevitable: Wells will eventually run dry–many already have.
Still, the water-technology farms can help. “We’re seeing some real farmer champions,” says Daniel Devlin, director of the Kansas Water Resources Institute. “I think that’s leading to a wide discussion there in some areas where they’ve either voluntarily reduced their water consumption, or they’re trying to plan on how to do that. So I’m pretty encouraged. I’m really seeing action out there.”
In one county, he says, farmers voted to reduce water use 20% over a five year period. They ended up exceeding their goal, while maintaining profitability. And new technology, including remote sensing from drones, has yet to be implemented.
“There’s a bunch of stuff that’s going to be available,” says Devlin, who has decades of experience in the field. “I’m frankly surprised. I’m much more encouraged today than I would have ever thought I was five years ago, for example. I see many, many irrigators that really see the problem and they’re trying to make changes, trying to make the water last for more generations than we predicted it would.”
Willis is currently analyzing some of the data from the farm, and says that he–and other farmers–want to see proof that the technology works on large-scale farms like his. That’s one reason that more farmers haven’t already switched to systems like drip irrigation. “With margins out there, they can’t afford a crop failure,” he says. “They can’t afford the capital investment without knowing for sure that it works.”