Is “Managed Depletion” A Terminal Diagnosis for Ogallala Aquifer?
March 17, 2020

by Jim Steiert (Hereford, TX)

A terminal diagnosis awaits the High Plains in seeing “managed depletion” as the only future for the Ogallala aquifer.  A 3-person panel of Texas Panhandle residents took a much broader view of the region’s water future at the recent Southern Plains Conference last month in Canyon.

Chris Grotegut, DVM, is a farmer, rancher, and practicing veterinarian in Deaf Smith County, Texas. He believes thinking of the Ogallala aquifer as a non-renewable resource ensures it will be pumped dry. Instead, farmers and society should look at the Ogallala Aquifer as rechargeable captured water. The Grotegut family has moved toward more efficient use of water, labor and equipment in their farming by transitioning much of their land toward native grass species and protecting playas.

The biggest benefit from improving soil health with land regenerating native grasses is that soil quality improved, and the water cycle became more efficient. The family’s water situation changed from a declining resource to a water table that has risen consistently over the past six years–to the point that with limited and conservation minded use of irrigation, the Grotegut family should be able to maintain or improve well capacity over time, leaving the property in a significantly improved natural resource state.  In essence, they’re taking steps to save the Ogallala Aquifer by returning farmland to its original function on the Plains as native grass, while also overplanting dormant grasses with winter crops in favorable moisture years, and minimally irrigating–all to ensure a water future by living within their water budget.

Jim Steiert, of Hereford, TX, is a playa author who sees great possibilities for augmenting the Ogallala via recharge from playas. He notes thathealthy playas ensure recharge of clean water into the Ogallala aquifer, in fact, the recharge rate through playas is 10 to 100 times greater than elsewhere. He maintains that of the 4,080 playas in the Texas Southern Plains currently categorized as pristine/functional at an average size of 17 acres, that amounts to 69,360 acres of playas.

At a recharge rate of 81,500 gallons per acre returned from one three-inch recharge event (i.e., a big thunderstorm), that’s 5 billion, 652 million, 840 thousand gallons of water recharged to the Ogallala Aquifer solely from the remnant pristine/functional playas in a single three-inch recharge event. Steiert estimates that if per capita per day water consumption is reduced, and 70% of playas are restored to a functional state where they provide recharge, there should be enough water in the Texas High Plains region to sustain 1,500,000 people indefinitely.

Dr. Darryl Birkenfeld of Nazareth,TX, is Executive Director of Ogallala Commons (www.ogallalacommons.org). He proclaims that opportunities for the public and landowners to gain practical knowledge about High Plains hydrology are still too few and far between to move them past the paradigm of “managed depletion.” As part of Ogallala Commons educational mission, Birkenfeld organizes 5 Playa Field Days annually that enable more than 120 landowners, Master Naturalists, and the interested public to receive information about playa ecosystems, while being introduced to techniques that restore a damaged water cycle.

Just as important, these events gather practitioners out onto the land–where restoration actions can be observed and where peer-to-peer learning can be utilized.   In elementary and middle schools around the Texas Panhandle-South Plains and eastern New Mexico, Ogallala Commons offers a dozen Playa Festivals that provide a day of focused, fun, and hands-on learning about the High Plains water cycle, macroinvertebrates, playa fauna and flora, and the Ogallala Aquifer for around 700 students per year. Birkenfeld believes that over the next decade, more field education opportunities will be needed if we are to truly put into practice measures that ensure an aquifer that is rechargeable. Changing our farming and grazing practices, restoring and maintaining playas, and educating ourselves and our children–a tall order, indeed, and a necessary combination of actions if we want to move beyond managed depletion and have a chance of living within our Ogallala water budget.

Jim Steiert is author of Playas: Jewels of the Plains, a life-long agriculture journalist, newspaper columnist, and avid outdoorsman.