LAWRENCE — The Kansas Geological Survey, based at the University of Kansas, will measure groundwater levels in western Kansas for five days in early January. The KGS and the Division of Water Resources of the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA-DWR) collect data annually to monitor the health of the region’s aquifers.
Ninety percent of the measured wells draw water from the High Plains aquifer, a massive network of underground water-bearing rocks that includes the extensive Ogallala aquifer and is the primary source of irrigation, municipal, and industrial water for much of western and central Kansas.
The High Plains aquifer also includes the Great Bend Prairie aquifer in west-central Kansas and the Equus Beds aquifer north and west of the city of Wichita. The remaining 10 percent of the measured wells are drilled into the Dakota aquifer and other deeper systems or shallow alluvial aquifers along creeks and rivers.
Weather permitting, the KGS crew will measure wells in 15 counties and will be in the vicinity of Colby on Friday, Jan. 2; Goodland on Saturday, Jan. 3; Syracuse and Ulysses on Sunday, Jan. 4; Liberal on Jan. 5 and Dodge City on Jan. 6.
Altogether, the KGS and KDA-DWR will measure 1,415 wells in 48 western and central Kansas counties. The KGS will measure 569 of the wells; the KDA-DWR Stockton field office will measure 224; the KDA-DWR Garden City field office will measure 254, and the KDA-DWR Stafford field office will measure 368.
“We appreciate the willingness of so many landowners throughout the region to allow us access to their wells,” said Brett Wedel, manager of the KGS’s water-level-data acquisition.
Many of the wells in the network have been measured annually for decades, some since the 1960s. Most are within the boundaries of one of the state’s five Groundwater Management Districts, which are organized by area landowners.
The annual data collected by the KGS and KDA-DWR show that groundwater levels have dropped most substantially in the portions of the High Plains aquifer with the lowest precipitation and the greatest rise in water usage, especially for irrigation, 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.
Measurements last January showed that groundwater levels on the whole rose in south-central Kansas while levels in western Kansas continued to decline, although less sharply than in the previous year.
“In 2014, the growing season in March to May started off very dry with June being extremely wet and, in places, so were July and August,” said Brownie Wilson, KGS water-data manager. “It wasn't a drought buster by any means, but the quantity and timeliness of the precipitation was probably good enough to reduce groundwater declines this year in comparison to recent years.”
Going into December, most of western Kansas was classified as being in moderate to severe drought, and the counties running along the Kansas-Oklahoma border are in the “extreme drought” category, Wilson said.
Historical annual measurements for each well are available at the Survey's website. Results of measurements made in January 2015 will be added in late February.