A crew from the Kansas Geological Survey, based at the University of Kansas, will be in western Kansas measuring groundwater levels the first week of January. Most of the measured wells are drilled into the High Plains aquifer, a vital source of irrigation, industrial and municipal water in the region.
“We get landowners’ permission to access the wells, which we measure annually to monitor the health of the aquifer,” said Brett Wedel, manager of the KGS’s water-level-data acquisition. “Most have been measured for years, even decades.”
The High Plains aquifer is a massive network of underground water-bearing rocks. The extensive Ogallala aquifer, which underlies parts of eight states, makes up a large portion of the High Plains aquifer. Two other units in the state are the Great Bend Prairie aquifer in west-central Kansas and the Equus Beds aquifer north and west of Wichita. About 10 percent of the measured wells tap deeper aquifers or shallower alluvial aquifers along creeks and rivers rather than the High Plains aquifer.
Weather permitting, the KGS crew will be working near Colby and Atwood on Jan. 2, Goodland and St. Francis on Jan. 3, Tribune, Syracuse and Ulysses on Jan. 4, Elkhart and Liberal on Jan. 5, and Meade and Dodge City on Jan. 6.
Groundwater levels in much of western Kansas have dropped as pumping increased over the past 70 years. Declines in some areas, particularly southwest Kansas, accelerated in the early 2000s when prolonged drought conditions led to increased pumping.
In 2018, precipitation over the Kansas portion of the High Plains aquifer was low in the early months, but by summer much of the region was receiving favorable rains.
“When we measure in January, we’re expecting to find decline rates in the aquifer that are, by and large, less than we've typically measured over the years,” said Brownie Wilson, KGS water-data manager. “There are a few counties in northwest Kansas where that may not hold true because they missed out on some of those summer precipitation events.”
The monitoring project is coordinated with the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources (DWR). Of the more than 1,400 wells monitored in 48 counties, the KGS will measure 581, and crews from DWR’s field offices in Garden City, Stafford and Stockton will measure 840. New wells are added to the program as older wells become inaccessible or to fill in spatial gaps in the monitoring network.
Most of the wells are within the boundaries of the state’s five Groundwater Management Districts, which are organized and governed by area landowners and water users to address local water-resource issues.
Groundwater levels are measured in December, January and February to avoid short-term declines caused by widespread pumping during the growing season.
Historical annual measurements for each well are available at the KGS's website. Results of measurements made in January 2019 will be added in late February.