What is the Ogallala Aquifer?
January 15, 2014

As we shared in our post last week, the name of Ogallala Commons came from the Ogallala Aquifer that binds our different regions together.  Like the Aquifer, we seek to nourish, sustain, and invigorate the communities in this region.

What is the Ogallala Aquifer?

ogallala commons mapOften mistaken as “an underground lake or river,” the Ogallala Aquifer is actually like an underground sponge—buried layers of sand and gravel saturated with water.

Located in the middle of the U.S., the Ogallala is the largest aquifer, by volume, in the world.  It compromises most of a larger aquifer system known as the High Plains Aquifer.  Formed about 5 million years ago by ancient erosion from the Rocky Mountains carried eastward by rivers, along with the additional accumulation of countless rains and snows, the Ogallala Aquifer now stretches beneath 174,000 square miles, underlying parts of eight Great Plains states: South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1889, the scientist who discovered the aquifer named after the town of Ogallala, NE.

The most amazing thing about the Ogallala Aquifer is its immense supply of water—enough to fill Lake Huron.  But here is the paradox and the problem.  For the most part, the Ogallala is a finite water source that is being steadily and rapidly depleted (see colored areas on the map below).  All the agriculture, industry, and municipalities that tap the Ogallala Aquifer for life are gradually sucking it down to levels that can’t be sustained.  With an average recharge rate of ½ in per year, it would take hundreds of years to refill the Ogallala in most of its vast expanse, even if we stopped pumping right away.

Why Does this Matter?

“Why should I be concerned?” you may wonder.  No matter where you live in the United States, the Ogallala Aquifer has an impact on your life, since it waters 30% of our nation’s irrigated crops.  In almost all the western plains region, the Ogallala is the sole source of water for rural and urban dwellers.  The plight of the Ogallala isn’t a situation that is unique to the Great Plains.  Groundwater depletion is happening all around the globe, and the consequences will only become worse as climate change accelerates.

The vision and outreach of Ogallala Commons, to reinvigorate the commonwealth that sustains our communities, is inextricably linked to actions and strategies that can preserve the Ogallala Aquifer.  We have no grand solutions, only the understanding that without water, there can be no life.

You can learn more about the challenges facing our mother lode aquifer in an upcoming book by Julene Bair (former Ogallala Commons Steering Committee Member) at http://www.julenebair.com/ogallalaaquifer/.

If you are interested in more resources about the Aquifer, you can also check out these links: