Serious conservation efforts head the list of practices necessary to insure that adequate water from the Ogallala aquifer is available for agriculture and human consumption for future generations.

Jarrett Atkinson, director of the Panhandle Water Planning Group, says the Ogallala aquifer is a finite resource with little recharge. Atkinson and others addressed the issue recently at the Ogallala Commons annual Southern Plains Conference in Nazareth, Texas.

The Ogallala Commons is a resource network that offers leadership to help communities thrive in the Ogallala aquifer region.

The conference focused on current and projected water use and availability and offered solutions for preserving and protecting the quality and quantity of water in the Ogallala aquifer.

When the group surveyed water expenditures in the Panhandle in 2000, the region was using 1.7 million acre-feet of water a year, enough to fill the Superdome in New Orleans 599 times. In the region, 91 percent of the water is used on irrigated agriculture, while municipalities use 4 percent.

The planning group uses a groundwater availability model to show how much water was stored in the aquifer in 1950, how much water is currently in storage, and how much could be available by 2050. The model demonstrates what could happen to the Ogallala aquifer with no changes in current demand.

Atkinson says many factors could change the projections and an updated version extending to 2060 will be available soon. The model shows projections beyond the planning group area, including the Oklahoma Panhandle, which could see major depletion by 2050 if water use remains constant. Several western Panhandle counties, including Dallam, Hartley, and Moore, will see major water shortages if current practices continue.

A few counties show a considerably less significant change. Lipscomb, Roberts, Ochiltree, and Hansford Counties show only minor changes. Atkinson said looking at past and current water use practices, as well as the crops currently grown, indicates what could happen to the life of the aquifer. For instance, some counties may have good saturated thickness of the Ogallala aquifer but irrigate sparingly or grow crops that require little water; whereas other counties may have good saturated thickness, but grow crops that require a lot of water.

No water surplus

“The planning group is on record saying there is no surplus of water. We need to think of it as a savings or retirement account,” Atkinson said. “We may want to withdraw from it in 50 years, but no one is going to fill it up.”

Conserving irrigation water local control is the best way to make a difference in extending the life of the Ogallala aquifer.

“Local control is essential in managing groundwater,” Atkinson said. “No. 1, it's the only option available through current law. And No. 2, and maybe more important, local control allows a group of people to regulate themselves for the common good in a manner that is appropriate for their particular resource.”

Local control also may address water quality as well as quantity. For instance, many local ground water conservation districts assist landowners in capping or plugging open wells, which can serve as direct lines for herbicides, pesticides, or other contaminants to enter the groundwater supply. Local ground water districts work year-round to close wells. These programs also protect landowners from liability. In the event of an accident involving an open well, the liability belongs to the landowner.

The liability is not limited to water wells but includes geophysical wells, seismographic tests, test holes, and various other dry wells that have been drilled in the Texas Panhandle, according to John Drake of Vista Environmental Services in Canyon.

Drake said landowners should check property for any type of open well. He also suggests conducting a historical search on the property to locate old wells.

Cap or plug

Landowners may cap or plug open wells. Capping is a temporary cover; plugging is permanent. Most ground water conservation districts allow a temporary cap, but, in most cases, caps must be able to sustain 400 pounds and not be easily moved.

“Capping a well is recommended when landowners do not wish to permanently seal the well,” said Bart Wyatt, information/education director for the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District. “A proper cap not only protects humans from falling into wells, but also prevents chemicals, fertilizers, or any pollutants from entering wells. Caps can keep small animals or animal feces from falling into wells, decomposing, and creating ground water contamination.”

If a landowner knows a well will never be used to pump water, both Wyatt and Drake urge them to plug it.

“Through time, (a temporary well cap) will deteriorate. It's not good to leave a well open that's not being used. You should get it plugged all the way from the water (up to the land surface.) Damage to the wellhead or cap could occur and, once again, you have a direct connect to the water,” Drake said. The cost to plug a well properly ranges from $3 per foot to $10 per foot.

Plugging assistance

Before plugging a well, Drake recommends contacting the local ground water conservation district and the Texas Water Well Drillers Association; each will guide landowners in properly closing the well according to water district and state requirements.

“You can help by reporting an open well to your local groundwater district, or simply by telling the landowner. Take a proactive role in a conservation group. Educate yourself. Respect and protect your natural resources,” Drake says.

Open wells are not the only form of ground water contamination. With a tabletop model aquifer Wyatt demonstrated how leaking lagoons or underground fuel storage tanks could pollute ground water.

“Gravity pulls everything down. When we pull water out of the aquifer, we create an empty space or void. If the lagoon or storage tank had a leak, gravity, along with the well's cone of influence, would pull contaminated water downward, eventually into the aquifer and possibly polluting a well,” said Wyatt.

Several water quality-monitoring wells are tested each year around groundwater districts analyzing the water quality of regional aquifers.

Conference speakers said good quality and quantities of available water has have sustained life on the Texas High Plains for thousands of years, and it can sustain life for years to come, but protection and conservation are crucial.