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Making the Ogallala Last

Can the future of the nation's largest groundwater resource be re-written? 

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Photo by Matthew Staver
For more on the Ogallala and to hear voices from the story, listen to CFWE and Rocky Mountain Community Radio's Connecting the Drops audio coverage. 

By Allen Best

The Ogallala Aquifer underlies 14 percent of Colorado along the state’s eastern border. This is a land without mountains and mostly bereft of snowmelt for irrigation. The climate is stingy to thirsty crops. Annual precipitation averages from 14 to 18 inches and mostly arrives as rain during the hot growing season. Never is it assured. Dryland corn is on the climatic margins, and even wheat is a roll of the dice. Drought is always lurking around the corner. 

Farming at the foot of the Rocky Mountains began almost immediately after the discovery of gold in 1858. On Colorado’s eastern tier, though, giant cattle companies prevailed until the first wave of homesteading farmers arrived in 1886 to plow the soil around Burlington, Yuma and other new towns. Then drought hit. By 1900, Yuma had lost half its residents. It was a boom-and-bust economy joined at the hip to climatic variability. It took grit to survive. 

Mining the Ogallala, which started mid-way through the 20th century, has untethered farming from both weather and climate. Farmers have used this cushion of subterranean “fossil” water, accumulated over several million years, to smooth the raspy edges of this tough country into lush circles of green. Red-brick houses such as you might find in the better urban neighborhoods now are found along graveled county roads. Towns with carefully trimmed lawns possess quiet vigor as centers of culture and commerce.

Just add water, they say. This difference can be found in Baca County, in the state’s southeastern corner. In 1934, when it was at the heart of the Dust Bowl, Walsh had 900 residents and Pritchett, 700. Both relied upon dryland farming. Population has declined since then. A single farmer now tills land once worked by ten or more. People drive more to distant towns to shop. But Pritchett now has only 137 residents and a café that is closed more years than not, while Walsh has 540 residents, a bank, computer dealer and easily a dozen other businesses. The difference? Walsh sits over the Ogallala. When temperatures rise above 100 degrees, as they often do, the center-pivot sprinklers gush around the clock over the thirsty circles of corn. Fittingly, one of the town’s businesses is called Artificial Rain. Its customers are homeowners seeking green lawns, but the concept is the same.

Will this continue? By 1978, Colorado had ceased issuing permits to tap the Ogallala in the northern high plains. Even then, barely 20 years into the muscular extraction of water from the High Plains Aquifer, as the Ogallala is sometimes called, it was clearly unsustainable. Ponds where local youngsters had ice-skated were drying up. A small lake on a river’s headwaters where a high school keg party was held in the early 1970s shrank and then disappeared altogether. Wells also dropped, neither uniformly nor consistently over time or geography: Here a foot a year, there nothing at all, but then seven feet in just one frantic summer of pumping in 2012, when Mother Nature brought little to the table except searing temperatures. Many wells near Flagler today have too little water to justify the cost of pumping. The town of Seibert has installed an 11-mile pipeline to reach a better-producing well. Even around Burlington, nearing the Kansas border, pumps sometimes suck air like a car with a missing piston.

In southeastern Colorado, the story is similar. A 2002 report to Colorado submitted by McLaughlin, a Denver-based water engineering company, found that groundwater levels in the state’s southern high plains had dropped 100 feet during the previous half-century. “At current withdrawal rates of 220,000 acre-feet annually, the groundwater reserves for the entire aquifer system are estimated to have an economic life expectancy of 56 years,” the report stated—and that was 12 years ago. Places on the margins don’t even have that long.

The scale of this depletion is staggering. Dick Wolfe, Colorado’s state water engineer, calculates that Colorado has drained an average 850,000 acre-feet of Ogallala water annually since largescale pumping began, three-quarters of it in the northern high plains and a quarter in the southern high plains. This is after deducting for recharge from irrigation return flows. Recharge from precipitation is minimal. By comparison, all transmountain diversions— the controversial practice of redirecting water across the Continental Divide from the state’s Western Slope—amount to an average 450,000 to 600,000 acre-feet annually.

In his masterful 1993 book, “Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land,” John Opie laid out the challenge succinctly. “A resource is mined, or developed or exploited, when it is consumed at a pace far beyond any known rate of replacement,” he wrote. “A Faustian bargain was struck with the water, and today’s payment is coming due.”

The surface map representing the Ogallala poses a Rorschach test. I see the visage of a menacing bear across northeastern Colorado. Sedimentary rocks containing Ogallala water tend to be thinner at the edges, such as north of Sterling, along the state line with Wyoming and Nebraska, where, with 50 feet or less of saturated thickness, there is too little water to exploit economically. Generally, the aquifer’s saturated thickness grows deeper from west to east. You encounter its basement rocks when driving on Interstate 70 east of Limon, near the hamlet of Genoa. At 5,600 feet in elevation, the outcrop there is higher than the state capitol’s golden dome. Continuing toward Burlington, now losing elevation, the band of sandstone rocks expands and deepens. In the Republican River Basin, around Wray, the saturated thickness grows to 300 feet.

Pumping began in a few places in Colorado during the Dust Bowl but accelerated in the 1950s after a drought that, in places, was even more severe. Steve Kramer remembers his family’s first well in 1964, located about 20 miles northwest of Burlington along the South Fork of the Republican River. His father drilled the well 327 feet deep. “His words were, ‘I can finally raise some feed in these dry years so I don’t have to sell the cow herd,’” Kramer remembers.

With this new buffer against the weather, Kramer’s father and grandfather expanded operations and diversified crop production. Now Kramer has been joined in farming by his two sons; one has a degree in mining engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. “His degree is working out well for us, because farming is a lot like the mining business,” says Kramer.

Technology has enabled this mining. First came the high-capacity centrifugal pumps. Far more powerful than windmills, they also required outside energy, which was readily supplied by the rapidly expanding petroleum industry. Centrifugal pumps, limited in reach to a vertical depth of 30 or so feet, were soon followed by vertical turbine pumps, which could access water hundreds of feet below the surface. With the arrival of electricity to rural areas in the 1940s, the stage was set for more intensified groundwater mining. The energy intensity of this extraction is reflected in the annual electrical demand of Highline Electric, a co-op based in Holyoke. From 25 megawatts, the demand jumps to 190 megawatts in the hottest summers. Mark Farnsworth, Highline’s general manager, says highcapacity irrigation wells in the Ogallala constitute 55 percent of this demand.

Center-pivot sprinklers have also been disruptive technology. Before they arrived, shovels and canvas tarps, later replaced by moveable pipes, were used to flood fields. It was labor intensive, and in 1948 Frank Zyback set out to create something better on his rented farm near Strasburg, east of Denver. Locals called it a “newfangled contraption.” With refinements, his invention is today the ubiquitous Valley-brand of sprinklers.

Sprinklers have been modified over the years. Except for the end guns on some models, water no longer shoots up and out, where it evaporates easily. Instead, water drizzles from nozzles that dangle a few feet over the crop rows. This has slowed the drafting of the Ogallala. “We probably use half the water we did back then,” says Kramer, referring to that first well drilled in 1964. But he and other farmers have also adopted other innovations, including no-till and minimum-till farming, to better retain soil moisture. “It’s amazing how much more production we can get out of that same well than we did.”

The sprinklers have also enabled mining of the Ogallala in new places. Flood irrigation requires slightly tilted fields. Gravity does the work of application. But large portions of eastern Colorado,  especially between Wray and Yuma, consist of sand and loess blown into dunes during the last 2.6 million years of ice ages and now stabilized by yucca, sagebrush and grasses. If not as fertile as what the farmers call the “heavy” soils near Burlington and Haxtun, the hills of sand have still produced bumper harvests of corn, beans and other crops.

Mining the Ogallala has allowed great expansion of irrigation in the northeastern plains, from around Burlington to Julesburg, most of this land drained by the Republican River. From 1960 to 1978, according to Slattery & Hendrix Engineering, groundwater pumping in the Republican Basin ballooned from 40,000 acre-feet per year to more than a million acre-feet. Despite no contribution from mountain snowmelt and precious little water available, the Republican Basin has 16 percent of Colorado’s irrigated acreage.

Corn is king here. In 2006, according to a study by Colorado State University ag economist James Pritchett and then-graduate assistant Jennifer Thorvaldson, corn was responsible for 80 percent of the $255 million in crop sales from Kit Carson and Yuma counties. Again, irrigation is the brawny story. Between Julesburg and Paoli in late July, I inspected a field of dryland corn. It had been an extremely wet June, but the rows were scraggly, with large gaps between stalks. The tallest tassels were head-high. A few miles away, I entered another cornfield. Just a few rows in, it was junglelike. The stalks were crowded together, their leaves dark green, and the tassels rose several feet above my head. This was fossil water at work. 

The Ogallala underlying the Sand Hills between Wray and Holyoke has plenty of water— for now. “We have 250 and even 280 feet of saturated thickness. But you don’t know how fast it will accelerate or how it will act,” says Rod Lenz, who farms north of Wray with three brothers and now another generation of “partners.” The brothers grew up near Greeley, but their family moved to Yuma County in 1973. “We plopped down in the Sand Hills,” says Lenz. “We were some of the first wells in this area.”

They operate on 10,000 acres, not an uncommon size in Ogallala country. “The cash cow for us, in most years, has been potatoes: Yukons,” Lenz says. The tubers go to Florida, Georgia, Texas and Illinois. The Lenz family also runs cattle and grows pinto and kidney beans and, of course, corn. 

Lenz wasn’t immediately alarmed about the declining Ogallala. Now, he’s raptly attentive. “Everybody knew that the aquifer was going down, from eight inches to a foot and a half per year. But you tended to ignore it because we had a lot of water,” he says. Then he became a director of the Sand Hills Ground Water Management District, and later the Republican River Water Conservation District, and gained a new sense of responsibility. “It became more serious and more pointed,” he says. “When you’re on the outside looking in, it’s ‘why are you guys regulating?’ When you’re on the inside looking out, you think ‘why aren’t you guys listening?’”

Colorado has 13 groundwater districts, of which eight are partly or entirely over the Ogallala. In enabling formation of districts, Colorado legislators in 1965 delegated to them authority to measure water tables and monitor changes in water rights. Legislators also gave the districts broad powers to work with the Colorado Ground Water Commission to govern groundwater extraction. The districts, however, have almost no money to execute such programs. State law allows assessment of 15 cents for every acre-foot of groundwater withdrawn. In the case of four districts in the Republican River Basin, that yields about $100,000 for staffing and other purposes. Another district in the basin sought a property tax but was rejected by voters. For groundwater districts to become bold agents of change will require a strong push from state government and greater local consensus.

One trigger for change, a lawsuit over the Republican River Compact, came howling over the horizon like a tornado a half-mile wide a decade ago. Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas share the Republican River, and after great floods killed 100 people in 1935, the three states sought help from the federal government. In time, the federal government bankrolled seven flood-control dams, one of them in Colorado: Bonny Reservoir on the South Fork of the Republican, 30 miles north of Burlington. But first, the feds required an interstate compact governing apportionment of the Republican’s waters. When the compact was struck in 1942, Colorado had 11 percent of the lands in irrigation within the Republican Basin. 

But in 1998 Kansas sued, alleging Nebraska was using more than its compact share. Colorado was soon entangled. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 approved a settlement that stipulated Colorado deliver more water to Nebraska. Then in 2004 the Colorado Legislature created the Republican River Water Conservation District, composed of local water users. The district got taxing authority but a daunting challenge: Figure this out, or we’ll start shutting down your high-capacity wells, warned the Colorado State Engineer’s Office in 2006. The compact is federal law, and Colorado must comply.

The Republican River district has crafted a multi-pronged response. It levied a fee of $5 per acre, later increased to $14.50 per acre, on all irrigated lands in the seven counties within the district. This money helps pay for a partial fix: In 2009, the district spent $40 million to purchase 62 groundwater rights in the still water-rich Sand Hills north of Laird, a hamlet along the Republican’s north fork at the Nebraska border, and with the purchase retired 9,000 acres of irrigated land. Then, in 2012, it built an $18 million pipeline to deliver this groundwater to the river. The pipeline currently connects eight irrigation wells, each capable of pumping up to 2,000 gallons per minute. They run January through March and, if necessary, November and December. Deb Daniel, general manager of the Republican district, describes it as a bittersweet solution. Nobody is happy to see the Ogallala water pumped to feed the river at the state line.

The Republican’s troubles are even more graphically revealed at Bonny Dam. Constructed from 1948 to 1951, the reservoir became an oasis for boating and fishing. By the 1970s, though, water levels began dropping. The primary cause was increased pumping of the Ogallala, which tapped water that would have seeped into the river. Finally, in what some called a mercy killing, Colorado State Engineer Dick Wolfe in 2011 ordered the reservoir to be unplugged. The small amount of water also helped Colorado with compact compliance in that the reservoir, being broad and shallow, was responsible for significant evaporation loss. Today, you can drive to the boat docks and see an expanse of green, but no water. There are signs describing the different types of fish, but no water for them. Yucca sprouts from the parking lot. The oasis lasted roughly 60 years.

Both the pipeline and the draining of Bonny Reservoir represent immediate solutions to a legal problem but only partially address the more fundamental problem of sustainability. The aquifer continues to decline. The rate varies by location, but at some point the wells won’t make sense to pump. Like a straw at the end of a rootbeer float, there will be mostly air.

In southeastern Colorado, the mining of the Ogallala continues unabated. No conservation measures have been adopted. Indeed, new wells can still be drilled, accelerating the depletion. Unlike the Republican River Compact, there has been no trigger for change. “We all know something needs to be done, but nobody wants to be the bad guy,” said one farmer who did not want to be identified.

Burke Griggs, who grew up near Denver but is now assistant state attorney general in Kansas, sees the Ogallala situation similar to other waterwoes in the West: “The engineering is ahead of public policy.” Griggs, who recently spent a year researching groundwater law while serving as a consulting professor at Stanford University’s Water in the West program, says, “We haven’t really thought through the consequences of tapping the Ogallala or [California’s] Central Valley groundwater.”

Colorado is thinking—and, in at least small ways, taking action. One possible future is found at the Pautler family farm near Stratton. It’s on the edge of the shrinking Ogallala. The first well here was drilled in 1961 when Tim Pautler was seven years old and, like the Kramer farm about ten miles away, maintaining the cattle herd was the original motivation. Operations expanded significantly over the decades. “The Ogallala gave us the ability to be a big risk taker,” explained Pautler one July afternoon at his office. Outside it was 102 degrees, and the wind was blowing. “This is the most severe test the corn has had this year,” he observed.

Dryland farms relying on the whims of Mother Nature take longer to rebound. Nonetheless, Pautler and his brother Gary have converted their own 3,000 acres back to dryland. They continue to irrigate some of the additional acres they rent. “For some of us, we have gone full circle,” he said. “We had three irrigation wells at one time, and we’re back to none.” Forcing the decision was a retreat of well production. One well that produced 1,100 gallons a minute in 1987 had slowed to 400 gallons by the time it was retired in 2006.

The Pautler brothers and others retiring land from irrigation benefit from financial incentives. The Republican River Water Conservation District has committed to spending $67.9 million through 2028 to permanently retire 49,000 acres of irrigated land. Federal funds administered through three separate programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have assisted with the retirement of 34,600 acres so far, with federal investment in the district reaching $42.3 million.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program brings the largest amount of federal funds to the Republican River Basin. This program, sponsored by the Republican River district, pays the Pautlers $150 for every acre that goes unirrigated, but to qualify, the land must be put into grass for at least 15 years and the water right retired permanently. It can, after 15 years, be restored to dryland production.

As a director of the Republican River district, Pautler reviews the state’s water production records from some of the 4,000 wells in the Republican Basin and sees a steady decline in most cases. “There is still irrigation in this community, but in another 20 years,” he says and shakes his head, “it ain’t gonna be here.”

Many share his opinion. Engineers predict continued pumping at today’s rates will exhaust reserves within 15 to 20 years in many areas. I asked one Holyoke resident how he expected this to impact his town. “We’ll lose half the population,” he answered.

The broad strategy of Pautler and other directors of the Republican district is to gently wean the area of its massive doses of fossil water in order to lengthen the life of the Ogallala. “How do we conserve the resource we have left in a way that doesn't kill the economy?” explained Pautler. But later he hinted at just how difficult this will be: “We’re trying to close the gate now, but the cattle and horses have been gone for years.”

Can the cattle and horses be herded back into the corral in order to ensure a sustained, longerterm depletion of the Ogallala in Colorado? Daniel, at the Republican district office in Wray, is hopeful. “We will have so much more conservation in place five years from now,” she says. “Not only is land being taken out of production, but a whole host of water-saving measures are being used. Many are based in new technology, such as soil mapping and measuring precisely how much moisture crops need. Already, many farmers have learned that they can dial back the water and still get successful crops.”

But embracing water reduction is easier when it’s raining a lot than when it’s dry and windy. “We are used to farming as many acres as we can and watering as much as we can,” observes Greg Larsen, a 41-year-old farmer from Haxtun. “It will be hard to back off. We’re so scared about drying things up…To make sure we cover ourselves, we have a tendency to overwater.”

With other family members, Larsen farms 11,000 acres, 1,300 of them irrigated. He figures the water underlying his land will last longer than that around Burlington and Stratton, but not as long as in the Sand Hills, where in some places the water may last a century at current rates of extraction. “We all have to work on this together or none of us will get to pump,” he says. 

Carrots or sticks? Colorado so far has dangled carrots. They’re crucial because, as Larsen says, “Guys won’t do it out of the kindness of the hearts.” But he probably speaks for most in the Republican River Basin in resisting mandates. 

Instead, local leaders are pushing education. An organization called the Water Preservation Partnership was recently forged between the Republican River district and eight groundwater management districts. It will seek to educate area farmers while laying out a variety of policy options that could prolong the life of the Ogallala. A first step will be ensuring every well permit holder is only pumping within the limits of his or her permit, a role the groundwater management districts have committed to tackle while also seeking state assistance with enforcement. Beyond that, the Republican district has no direct authority to order reductions. Groundwater management districts do, but until a goal for actual reduction is set, along with a timeline for achieving it, little progress can be made.

Kansas has pioneered one promising model. A 2012 state law gave groundwater management districts there authority to adopt specific conservation plans to meet local goals. In the first such local enhanced management area, or LEMA, farmers in Sheridan County have adopted the goal of reducing pumping by 20 percent during the next five years. Each of 185 irrigation wells can pump a maximum 55 inches over the five years, using a little more or less each year. In 2013, the first year, irrigators used an average 10.23 inches as some farmers switched to milo, soybeans and other less water-intensive crops, says Katherine Wilkins-Wells, manager of Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District 4. The law also gives the Kansas Division of Water Resources a big stick: fines of up to $1,000 for each day of excess pumping and a suspended water right. A new federal crop insurance program is being piloted as part of the program to cover crops grown without full irrigation, which normally cannot be insured. Farmers could not afford the risk of reduced pumping without this type of coverage. Griggs believes the LEMA strikes a balance. “The LEMA can be a wonderful tool if it combines local decisionmaking regarding water conservation with central state power to ensure that conservation occurs,” he says.

Some wonder whether the states should band together, even cede authority to a regional, quasifederal district. After all, the Ogallala transcends political boundaries, and the federal government likely needs to be part of the solution. It has clearly provided incentives for prodigious pumping. Griggs and others point to federal crop insurance provided to farmers that is based on rolling tenyear averages of bushels-per-acre, encouraging maximum production. “It sort of rewards highrisk behavior,” notes Griggs.

That same argument is made by Michael Bowman, whose great-grandfather homesteaded south of Paoli in the late 1880s. At one point, his family’s partnership had 100 pivots in the Wray area. Federal crop insurance has improved profits and, in the process, boosted land prices. With corn reaching $8 a bushel in recent years, irrigated land now sells for as much as $10,000 an acre, compared to $500 for grass. It is, says Bowman, an artificial economy. 

But yet another solution may be an even more dramatic shift in farming. Agriculture today consists of annual plants in monoculture and brought to harvest with the aid of massive amounts of what farmers call “inputs,” including chemicals, fertilizer and, of course, water. Decades ago, Kansas farmer and plant geneticist Wes Jackson concluded that agricultural systems that most closely approximate nature would be most sustainable. With that purpose, he founded The Land Institute at Salina and hopes to someday breed perennials, including wheat, that can produce at least three-quarters of current yields but without the massive inputs.

Josh Svaty, a former director of the Kansas Department of Agriculture now affiliated with The Land Institute, also points to a question of ethics, and not just for those in Colorado. “Why do we deserve to extract that centuries-old aquifer any faster than our ancestors?” he asks. Without changes, the vast Ogallala resource of Colorado and several other states will be exhausted within the lifetimes of just three generations.

And if the Ogallala vanishes, so will much else in eastern Colorado. One clammy evening in July, I drove from Wray to Holyoke, pausing along a dusty county road to study a center-pivot sprinkler that was fizzling ancient water over a field of beans on what was undoubtedly pastureland a few decades ago. It was quiet as the sun dropped below the horizon. Then I thought about the two towns, both with hospitals, new motels, and the bustle of 2,300 residents each. This vitality is a direct result of these Ogallala sprinklers. How quiet will they become when the wells go dry?

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