With the help of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, farmers and ranchers are working hard to conserve the Ogallala Aquifer, a 225,000-square-mile underground basin vital to agriculture, municipal and industrial development.
The aquifer stretches from western Texas to South Dakota and supports nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the United States.
“The Ogallala Aquifer covers over 80 percent of Nebraska and is a huge water source for agriculture. A lot of our state’s infrastructure relies on agriculture, which makes the aquifer and conservation of it even more important,” Curtis Scheele, NRCS Water Management Specialist, said.
During drought times, the aquifer becomes an even more critical water resource for America’s heartland as many rely on the aquifer in lieu of rainwater.
“Crops and livestock need water – the more the rain, the less pumping of water from the aquifer and vice versa. We saw a lot more pumping through the drought last year, and multiple year droughts can have a great effect on the water supply,” said Scheele. By reducing an individual operation’s water use, conservation helps relieve some of the pressure put on the aquifer.
Many farmers are switching their irrigation systems from gravity to sprinkler center pivots and subsurface drip irrigation systems, which can increase pumping efficiencies by at least 40 percent.
Technology is also playing a large role in water conservation. Some new pivots use variable rate irrigation, meaning as the pivot travels over areas, it adjusts water rates to match the need.
Conservation practices such as no-till and cover crops can help improve soil health and water quality. Healthy soils increase water capacity and infiltration making lands more resilient to drought.
Improving soil health also helps decrease run-of which provides a cleaner drinking supply for the 82 percent of people who live in the aquifer boundary.
Reed McClymont, a farmer in south central Nebraska, converted his gravity irrigation system to center pivots and installed a subsurface drip irrigation system.
“We know we’ve reduced our irrigation water usage by at least 50 percent with the center pivots and that or more on the subsurface drip system. With both systems we’re more efficient in getting water to the plants in a uniform manner, too. There was a nine-bushel-an-acre corn yield difference favoring the newer systems,” McClymont said.
The conservation efforts taken by farmers and ranchers like McClymont have helped decrease the water withdrawn from the Ogallala Aquifer by more than 280 billion gallons over the past four years and are expected to continue contributing to the aquifer's health in the future.