Ogallala Aquifer suffered its second-worst drop since at least 2000 in a large swath of the Texas Panhandle
figures, published this week by the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, cover a 16-county area stretching from south of Lubbock to Amarillo. The Ogallala wells measured by the district experienced an average drop of 1.87 feet from 2012 to 2013.
"There are some pretty remarkable declines," [Bill] Mullican said. One well in the western part of the water district, he said, dropped 19 feet over the year.
The vast majority of Texas is enduring a drought, but the Panhandle has been especially hard hit, causing farmers to pump more water to make up for the lack of rain
Mullican said that a 1.8-foot drop could cause some farmers to stop irrigating in areas where the aquifer is thin. But in places where the aquifer is thick - such as a band stretching from Plainview to Clovis, N.M. - it could represent only 2 to 3 percent of the remaining water in storage and have "very little effect," he said.
2011-2012 drop was ~ 2.5ft
normal years 0.75-1 ft drop
"If we don't get some significant rainfall, we're going to lose a lot of farmers," said Trey Ellis, the Parmer County judge. The wheat crop this year, he said, is "pretty much devastated," by a combination of extreme spring temperature swings and drought, he said.
Dirt storms are becoming common, and "we haven't made a wheat crop in three years for sure," he said. [Benji Henderson, a Texas AgriLife extension agent in Parmer County]
The district will require all new water wells to have meters next year, and existing wells must have meters by 2016. The policies have been controversial, though, and the district's board plans a review of them in the summer or fall.
Measurements taken this winter by the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District, which lies farther north in the Panhandle than the High Plains district, are still being tabulated. However, they are likely to show an average decline of about 3.5 or 3.6 feet in the Ogallala, according to Dale Hallmark, a hydrologist working for the district. During the drought of 2011, the average decline was about 3.4 feet, Hallmark said.
(The Ogallala Aquifer, sometimes known as the High Plains Aquifer, stretches as far north as South Dakota.) In some places, the drops have been more than 150 feet since the middle part of last century.
"The general trend has been [that] the depletion in the High Plains Aquifer is more severe the further south you go," said Leonard Konikow, a USGS hydrologist and the study's author.
That is partly due to the weather, he said: The Texas Panhandle gets relatively little rain, which means that more water gets pumped for irrigation and less water is available to recharge the aquifers. In addition, he said, Texas has a large number of wells and started pumping earlier historically than other states.
As to how much water is left, Konikow was not optimistic. In some hard-hit Texas portions of the Ogallala, "it appears that about half the aquifer's saturated thickness has dried up," he said.