LAWRENCE — 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 2022.
Levels are measured annually as part of a joint project conducted by the KGS and the Kansas Department of Agriculture's Division of Water Resources (DWR) to monitor the health of the state's valuable groundwater resources.
Weather permitting, the KGS crew will be working near Oakley and Colby on Jan. 3, Goodland and Bird City on Jan. 4, Goodland and Sharon Springs on Jan. 5, Syracuse and Hugoton on Jan. 6, and Liberal and Dodge City on Jan. 7.
Most of the measured wells tap into the High Plains aquifer, a massive network of underground water-bearing rocks and the main source of water in the region. The rest draw from deeper aquifers or shallower alluvial aquifers along creeks and rivers.
Based on 2021 precipitation patterns and readings from wells in the region in which continuous water-level recording equipment has been installed, Brownie Wilson, KGS water-data manager, expects this winter’s measurements to show an overall decline, which for some areas of the state began in the 1950s.
“I think we will see varying levels of groundwater declines to be prevalent across most of the Kansas High Plains and even more so in the Ogallala region of the High Plains aquifer,” Wilson said.
The High Plains aquifer underlies portions of eight states. In Kansas, it encompasses three individual aquifers — the Ogallala aquifer, the Equus Beds around Wichita and Hutchinson, and the Great Bend Prairie aquifer around Pratt and Great Bend.
Groundwater levels in much of the state's portion of the Ogallala aquifer, especially in southwest Kansas, have been on the decline since water use started to rise in the mid-20th century. Dry years lead to increased water usage, primarily for irrigation, which in turn typically causes greater declines in water levels.
“Currently, the western third of Kansas is under moderate to severe drought conditions with most counties not seeing appreciable rainfall since May,” Wilson said. “With the dry conditions and resulting increase in pumping demands being extended into fall, especially in southwest Kansas, I’m anticipating the depth to water in numerous wells to be a little deeper than would normally be expected.”
The KGS and DWR measure depth to water in more than 1,400 wells in 48 counties, primarily in January to avoid as much as possible skewed data associated with short-term declines caused by widespread pumping during the growing season. This year, the KGS will measure 586 wells, and crews from the DWR's field offices in Garden City, Stafford and Stockton will measure 837.
Wells are accessed with landowners’ permission, and many have been monitored for years, although new ones are added as older wells become inaccessible or to fill in spatial gaps in the monitoring network. The majority 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.
Historical annual measurements for each well are available on the KGS's website. Results of measurements made in January will be added in late February.