USDA to spend $8M to conserve Ogallala Aquifer | TSLN.com

USDA to spend $8M to conserve Ogallala Aquifer

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Monday that USDA will invest about $8 million in the Ogallala Aquifer initiative in fiscal year 2016 to help farmers and ranchers conserve billions of gallons of water annually while strengthening agricultural operations.

The eight-state Ogallala Aquifer, the primary water source for the High Plains region, has suffered in recent years from increased periods of drought and declining water resources.

"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 noted in a 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.

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.

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 million acre-feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

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USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is in charge of the initiative, is adding two new focus areas, while continuing support for seven projects.

These projects include building soil health by using cover crops and no-till, which allow the soil to hold water longer and buffer roots from higher temperatures; improving the efficiency of irrigation systems; and implementing prescribed grazing to relieve pressure on stressed vegetation.

The new focus areas are:

▪ Middle Republican Natural Resource District in Nebraska: The focus will be in areas where groundwater pumping contributes to high levels of stream-flow depletion. 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.

▪ Oklahoma Ogallala Aquifer Initiative: This project will help landowners implement conservation practices that decrease water use. It includes educating citizens about water conservation systems, including converting from irrigated to dryland farming and practices that improve irrigation water management; crop residue and tillage management; nutrient and pesticide management; 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.

NRCS analysis of Environmental Quality Incentives Program conservation projects in the region 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.

–The Hagstrom Report

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