The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest underground water reservoir in the United States. It covers 174,000 square miles in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. This aquifer, a major source of water for agricultural, municipal and industrial development on the High Plains, is being depleted as withdrawals exceed recharge.

 Program background

Since 2003, the Ogallala Aquifer Program (OAP) has provided permanent federal funding to a research consortium for numerous research projects on water conservation. The program includes U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Kansas State University, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Service, Texas Tech University and West Texas A&M University.

Objectives

With the high rate of depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, particularly in Texas and Kansas, the OAP’s focus is to improve the sustainability of agricultural industries and rural communities through innovative scientific research and technology transfer. The OAP’s four current objectives are:

  • Develop and evaluate water management strategies and technologies that could reduce water withdrawals for irrigation by 20 percent in 2020 compared to 2012, while maintaining and/or enhancing the economic viability of the agriculture industry and the vitality of the southern Ogallala Aquifer region
  • Develop and evaluate management strategies and technologies that would increase the productivity and profitability of dryland cropping systems
  • Improve the understanding of hydrological and climatic factors that affect water use and economic profitability and provide estimates of the climatic, hydrologic, cropping and profitability conditions that are likely to occur on the southern High Plains over the next 50 years
  • Determine the impacts of alternative water withdrawal/use policies on the economic viability of the agriculture industry and the vitality of the southern Ogallala Aquifer region

Program operation and funding

Every spring, ARS scientists from Bushland and Lubbock and the four participating universities submit research and technology transfer proposals, typically describing activities to occur over a two-year period. Peer scientists review these proposals then the OAP leadership team evaluates the proposals’ reviews and ratings and selects projects for funding. The leadership team is comprised of one representative from the ARS locations in Bushland and Lubbock and one representative from each of the four universities. Awards for support are typically announced in August with funds becoming available October 1.

Between 2003 and 2014, the OAP provided $16 million of support to university scientists. The scientists use these funds primarily for materials and supplies, and temporary labor— graduate students and research associates — to supplement the research and extension efforts already being conducted. Therefore, OAP funds leverage existing scientific and physical resources, such as laboratories and field sites.

Accomplishments

Accomplishments to date that conserve water and promote agriculture include:

  • Irrigation scheduling using evapotranspiration demand has reduced water application by 15 percent over the past 10 years, saving farmers approximately $200 million in production costs
  • Advances in the design and management of subsurface drip irrigation have led to the doubling of the acres using this water conserving technology since 2003
  • New irrigation automation systems, which could benefit six million acres by reducing labor costs by $7 per acre while maintaining crop yields, have been developed and tested
  • Development of drought-and heat-resistant crop varieties for corn, cotton, sorghum, wheat and peanuts has been advanced
  • Extension programs have educated thousands of farmers in water conservation practices and millions have been exposed to the importance of the Ogallala Aquifer to national and world food and fiber supply via public media stories.

Recognition

OAP has been highly successful as reflected by three prestigious awards.

  • 2011: Recognized as an Exemplary Example of Cooperative Research and Development Programs at the Agriculture, Food, Nutrition and Natural Resources R&D Round Table. The Round Table was organized by Farm Foundation, NFP, Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation, Institute of Food Technologists, Federation of Animal Science Societies, the American Society of Agronomy, the Soil Science Society of America, and the Crop Science Society of America, in collaboration with USDA's Research, Education and Economics Mission Area, the USDA Forest Service and USDA's National Agricultural Research, Education, Extension and Economics Advisory Board.
  • 2012: Blue Legacy Award for Agriculture by the Texas Water Conservation Advisory Council for its efforts related to agricultural water conservation
  • 2013: Honor Award for Excellence from Secretary of Agriculture to Ogallala Aquifer Program for sustaining rural prosperity on the drought prone Southern High Plains by finding solutions to problems arising from declining water in the Ogallala Aquifer

Program Partners

Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment

KCARE was established to coordinate and enhance research, extension and teaching activities pertaining to environmental issues related to agriculture.

Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Amarillo

Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Amarillo serves the Texas High Plains and state through research and education in environmental systems management, including air and water quality, food, feed and fiber production, animal nutrition and health, and natural resource conservation and protection.

Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Lubbock

Home of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Station at Lubbock and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service district office for the south plains of Texas.

Texas Tech Water Resources Center

The Texas Tech WRC's research activities focus on current water issues of regional importance to the Texas High Plains and encompass state, national, and international water issues that are of common concern.

Texas Water Resources Institute

The Texas Water Resources Institute serves as a focal point for water-related research at Texas universities and fosters and communicates research and educational outreach programs focused on water and natural resources science and management issues in Texas and beyond.

USDA-ARS Bushland

The laboratory research programs include: irrigation equipment and management, evapotransporation, infiltration, conservation tillage, manure management, dust control, and renewable energies.

USDA-ARS Lubbock

The mission of the Cropping Systems Research Laboratory is to develop fundamental, long-range research programs in Plant Stress and Germplasm Development, Wind Erosion and Water Conservation, and Cotton Production and Processing.

West Texas A&M University College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences

The mission of the college is to provide excellence in teaching, research, and professional service in the major areas we serve and, ultimately, to prepare students for employment by providing them with a skill set that will make them successful now and into the future, regardless of their chosen path.