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Continued Drought Means Another Big Drop for Ogallala Aquifer

The Ogallala Aquifer suffered its second-worst drop since at least 2000 in a 16-county swath of the Texas Panhandle, new measurements show. With the drought showing little sign of abating, farmers face another tough year.

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The Ogallala Aquifer suffered its second-worst drop since at least 2000 in a large swath of the Texas Panhandle, new measurements show.

The closely watched figures, published this week by the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, cover a 16-county area stretching from south of Lubbock to Amarillo. The Ogallala wells measured by the district experienced an average drop of 1.87 feet from 2012 to 2013. That makes it one of the five or 10 worst drops in the district's more than 60-year history, said Bill Mullican, a hydrogeologist with the district.

“There are some pretty remarkable declines,” Mullican said. One well in the western part of the water district, he said, dropped 19 feet over the year.

The vast majority of Texas is enduring a drought, but the Panhandle has been especially hard hit, causing farmers to pump more water to make up for the lack of rain. That depletes the amount of water stored in the aquifer over the long term, which means future generations will find less water to pump to grow crops.

Mullican said that a 1.8-foot drop could cause some farmers to stop irrigating in areas where the aquifer is thin. But in places where the aquifer is thick — such as a band stretching from Plainview to Clovis, N.M. — it could represent only 2 to 3 percent of the remaining water in storage and have “very little effect,” he said.

This year’s figures are not quite as bad as 2012, when Ogallala levels in the High Plains district dropped more than 2.5 feet on average, reflecting the terrible toll of 2011, which was the worst single-year drought in the state’s history.

As the drought persists, “a lot of people have a lot more concern than normal,” said Jim Conkright, general manager of the High Plains water district.

In normal years, the Ogallala tends to drop about three-quarters of a foot or a foot on average, Conkright said. The district uses data from nearly 1,400 wells for its measurements.

The wells in Parmer County, an agricultural heartland that is also home to a Cargill meat-packing plant, experienced the worst drop this year — more than 3 feet on average.

“If we don’t get some significant rainfall, we’re going to lose a lot of farmers,” said Trey Ellis, the Parmer County judge. The wheat crop this year, he said, is “pretty much devastated,” by a combination of extreme spring temperature swings and drought, he said.

Benji Henderson, a Texas AgriLife extension agent in Parmer County, said that just six-tenths of an inch of rain has fallen at his home since the beginning of the year. Snow did little to help, because the wind blew it into big drifts.

“It’s dry. It’s hot. It’s just not real good,” Henderson said. “Seems like every time we get a cloud, it just doesn’t do much for us.” Dirt storms are becoming common, and “we haven’t made a wheat crop in three years for sure,” he said.

"We have places that used to be irrigated and no longer are irrigated," Henderson said.

As the drought persists, the High Plains water district is moving forward with new policies to ensure that farmers measure their water use accurately, which is important for long-term planning and comparing water usage year to year. The district will require all new water wells to have meters next year, and existing wells must have meters by 2016. The policies have been controversial, though, and the district’s board plans a review of them in the summer or fall.

Other reports also underscore the seriousness of the Ogallala’s depletion. Measurements taken this winter by the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District, which lies farther north in the Panhandle than the High Plains district, are still being tabulated. However, they are likely to show an average decline of about 3.5 or 3.6 feet in the Ogallala, according to Dale Hallmark, a hydrologist working for the district. During the drought of 2011, the average decline was about 3.4 feet, Hallmark said.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Geological Survey released a national groundwater study showing that Ogallala levels have dropped more in Texas than in other states. (The Ogallala Aquifer, sometimes known as the High Plains Aquifer, stretches as far north as South Dakota.) In some places, the drops have been more than 150 feet since the middle part of last century.

“The general trend has been [that] the depletion in the High Plains Aquifer is more severe the further south you go,” said Leonard Konikow, a USGS hydrologist and the study’s author.

That is partly due to the weather, he said: The Texas Panhandle gets relatively little rain, which means that more water gets pumped for irrigation and less water is available to recharge the aquifers. In addition, he said, Texas has a large number of wells and started pumping earlier historically than other states.

As to how much water is left, Konikow was not optimistic. In some hard-hit Texas portions of the Ogallala, “it appears that about half the aquifer’s saturated thickness has dried up,” he said.

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