LAWRENCE — A crew from the Kansas Geological Survey, based at the University of Kansas, will measure water levels in hundreds of western Kansas wells this week. Most have been measured annually for years, some since the 1960s, to monitor declines in the state’s most valuable groundwater resources.
The wells draw mainly from the High Plains aquifer, a massive network of underground water-bearing rocks that underlies parts of eight states. Groundwater levels in much of the aquifer — the primary source of irrigation, municipal and industrial water in western and central Kansas — have dropped, in places precipitously, as pumping increased over the past 70 years.
Weather permitting, the KGS crew will be working near Colby and Atwood today, Jan. 2; Goodland and St. Francis on Wednesday, Jan. 3; Tribune, Syracuse and Ulysses on Thursday, Jan. 4; Elkhart and Liberal on Friday, Jan. 5, and Meade and Dodge City on Saturday, Jan. 6.
The monitoring project is coordinated with the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources (DWR). The KGS will measure 564 wells, and crews from DWR’s field offices in Garden City, Stafford and Stockton will measure an additional 825 wells. Each agency also will measure 10 wells new to the program.
“Each year new wells are added as older wells become inaccessible or there is a need to fill in spatial gaps in the monitoring network,” said Brett Wedel, manager of the KGS’s water-level-data acquisition. “Landowner permission is obtained beforehand.”
The High Plains aquifer encompasses the extensive Ogallala aquifer, the Great Bend Prairie aquifer in west-central Kansas and the Equus Beds aquifer north and west of Wichita. Most of the wells are within the boundaries of the state’s five Groundwater Management Districts (GMDs), which are organized and governed by area landowners and water users to address local water-resource issues.
Of the more than 1,400 wells to be measured by the KGS and DWR in 48 counties, 90 percent draw water from the High Plains aquifer. The rest tap deeper aquifers or shallower alluvial aquifers along creeks and rivers.
Earlier in this decade water levels fell sharply in some areas, especially in southwest Kansas, as pumping increased during drought years. In 2016 when precipitation levels bounced back to near normal, declines slowed or reversed.
“Precipitation patterns in 2017 were again pretty favorable for Kansas, especially along the Kansas-Colorado line,” said Brownie Wilson, KGS water-data manager. “I’m expecting this year’s measurements to be close to where they were last January or maybe down a little but, overall, greatly improved from what we saw five to six years ago.”
Groundwater levels are measured in December, January, and February to avoid short-term declines caused by wide-spread pumping during the growing season.
Historical annual measurements for each well are available at the KGS's website. Results of measurements made in January 2018 will be added in late February.