LAWRENCE — Crews from the Kansas Geological Survey, based at the University of Kansas, will be in the western part of the state in early January measuring groundwater levels. The KGS and the Division of Water Resources (DWR) of the Kansas Department of Agriculture collect data annually to monitor the health of the region’s aquifers.
Weather permitting, the KGS crews will measure 510 wells in multiple counties in the vicinity of Colby on Thursday, Jan. 2, Goodland on Friday, Jan. 3, Syracuse and Ulysses on Saturday, Jan. 4, and Liberal on Sunday, Jan. 5.
In total, the KGS and DWR will measure 1,407 wells in 47 western and central Kansas counties. DWR staff from field offices in Stockton, Garden City and Stafford will measure 897 wells in a regional network covering parts of western and central Kansas.
“We measure water levels in the same wells each year with the permission of landowners,” said Brett Wedel, manager of the KGS water-level-data acquisition efforts. “Thanks to their cooperation we are able to maintain a historical record of the annual groundwater levels for some wells dating back to the 1960s.”
Most of the wells monitored in the program are within the boundaries of one of the state’s five Groundwater Management Districts, which are organized by area landowners and water users, and have been measured annually for at least two to three decades.
Ninety percent of the measured wells draw water from the High Plains aquifer, a massive network of underground water-bearing rocks that underlies parts of eight states. It includes the extensive Ogallala aquifer, the Great Bend Prairie aquifer in west-central Kansas, and the Equus Beds aquifer north and west of the city of Wichita. The rest of the wells are drilled into the Dakota aquifer and other deeper systems or shallow alluvial aquifers along creeks and rivers.
The High Plains aquifer is the primary source of irrigation, municipal and industrial water for much of western and central Kansas. Groundwater levels have dropped substantially in portions of the aquifer where water usage has risen the most over the past 60 years.
Wells are measured in December, January and February to avoid short-term declines caused by pumping for irrigation during the growing season.
Between the winters of 2011–2012 and 2012–2013, water levels in the entire network declined, on average, a little more than 2 feet, and southwest Kansas continued to be hardest hit with an average decline there of 3.56 feet. During 2013, drought conditions continued in much of the region.
“Although parts of west-central and southwest Kansas received significant precipitation amounts in late July and August 2013, drought conditions persisted across roughly the western third of the state,” said Brownie Wilson, KGS water-data manager. “Most of northwest Kansas missed out on those rains.”
The U.S. Drought Monitor classifies the western third of Kansas in severe drought and small areas in the northwest and southwest corners in extreme drought. The Drought Monitor map —produced in partnership by the University of Nebraska, USDA and NOAA — is updated weekly.
“The drier the conditions, the greater the pumping demands are on the aquifer,” Wilson said. “Given the low recharge rates in the Ogallala portion of the High Plains aquifer, this in turn causes increases in the rates of groundwater declines.”
Using the data collected by the KGS and DWR, landowners and local groundwater management districts as well as government agencies, municipalities and private industries can evaluate water-level trends to plan for water usage and manage groundwater resources.
Historical annual measurements for each well are available at the Survey's website. Results of measurements made in January 2014 will be added in late February.