USDA allots $8 million to help preserve Ogallala Aquifer

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 9, 2015 - USDA plans to invest $8 million in fiscal year 2016 in projects that will help farmers and ranchers served by the drought-depleted Ogallala Aquifer conserve billions of gallons of water annually while strengthening agricultural operations.

The plan involves USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) adding two new focus areas to the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative while continuing support for seven ongoing focus areas. These targeted local efforts include improving the efficiency of irrigation systems; building soil health by using cover crops and no-till practices that allow the soil to hold water longer and buffer roots from higher temperatures; and implementing prescribed grazing to relieve pressure on stressed vegetation.

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"USDA's Ogallala Aquifer Initiative helps landowners build resilience in their farms and ranches and better manage water use in this thirsty region," said Vilsack. "Since 2011, USDA has invested $74 million in helping more than 1,600 agricultural producers conserve water on 341,000 acres through this initiative," Vilsack said in news release.

The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest aquifer in the U.S. and includes nearly all of Nebraska and large sections of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. It is the primary water source for the High Plains region. Covering nearly 174,000 square miles, it supports the production of nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the U.S. and supplies 30 percent of all water used for irrigation in the U.S.

Water levels in the region are dropping at an unsustainable rate, making targeted conservation even more important. From 2011 to 2013, the aquifer's overall water level dropped by 36.0 million acre-feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The new focus areas are:

-Middle Republican Natural Resource District in Nebraska: The project addresses groundwater quantity and quality concerns. The focus will be in areas where groundwater pumping contributes to high levels of stream flow depletion. USDA says priority will be given to areas where groundwater pumping contributes to more than 48 percent of the overall aquifer depletion rate. The project will enable participants to voluntarily implement practices to conserve irrigation water and improve groundwater quality.


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-Oklahoma Ogallala Aquifer Initiative: This project will help landowners implement conservation practices that decrease water use. It includes an educational component that will educate citizens about water conservation and conservation systems. These systems include converting from irrigated to dryland farming and conservation practices that improve irrigation water management; crop residue and tillage management; nutrient and pesticide management, and grazing systems; and playa wetland restorations. The targeted area includes places where great amounts of water are consumed. Focal areas will be heavily-populated municipalities in the aquifer region.

For a full list of OAI areas, click here.

An NRCS analysis of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) conservation projects in the region, including those implemented through OAI, estimated reduced water withdrawals of at least 1.5 million acre-feet, or 489 billion gallons of water, from 2009 through 2013 and an energy savings equivalent of almost 33 million gallons of diesel fuel due to reduced irrigation.

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