Kansas Geological Survey to study the social and environmental factors of successful groundwater conservation programs

LAWRENCE — Researchers from the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) at the University of Kansas teamed up with colleagues from three other institutions to study what makes some groundwater conservation programs more effective than others.

Jim Butler presents in Hoxie, 2017.The project, funded by $1.6 million from the National Science Foundation, focuses on two regions where irrigators have come together to design their own groundwater conservation programs, one in the San Luis Valley to the south Colorado and the other in Sheridan County in northwest Kansas.

The success of conservation programs in Kansas and Colorado has sparked the interest of communities across the United States and abroad, as groundwater levels are falling in many places. Continued unsustainable use will threaten farmers’ livelihoods as well as national and global food supplies.

“We hope our study will help reveal what social and environmental factors have led to successful conservation, which could provide guidance to communities outside of our study regions,” said Sam Zipper, assistant scientist at KGS and co. – principal researcher of the project.

The project, “Towards Resilient and Adaptive Community Management of Groundwater-Dependent Agricultural Systems,” will be led by Landon Marston of Virginia Tech. Purdue University and the Colorado School of Mines are also research partners.

In Kansas, groundwater pumping into the High Plains Aquifer, which underlies most of western Kansas, has increased dramatically over the past 70 years. A long-running KGS project to monitor water levels in a network of wells in central and western Kansas found that from 1996 to 2020, levels dropped more than 11 feet, on average, in Groundwater Management District 4, which includes the Sheridan County Study Area.

In the Sheridan County program, known as the Sheridan Local Enhanced Management Area-6, or SD-6 LEMA, irrigators developed a conservation plan to reduce pumping by 20%. Since its inception, SD-6 LEMA members have reduced pumping by 32%, exceeding their stated goal, and water level drop rates have decreased by approximately 65% ​​with no noticeable reduction in agricultural production.

However, the program operated under ideal conditions, with the region experiencing relatively wet years and stable agricultural markets.

“The challenge for us is to develop a better understanding of the resilience and transferability of these programs,” said Jim Butler, principal investigator at KGS and co-principal investigator of the project. “In other words, how will they perform in a future characterized by a changing climate and away from stable markets, and will what works in Sheridan County continue to work in different agricultural and hydrological contexts? These are the questions we will strive to answer in our efforts to better position the irrigation community in Kansas and elsewhere for what the future holds.

KGS will employ a postdoctoral researcher to develop a computer program, the Crop-Hydrological-Agent Modeling Platform, or CHAMP, to help answer these questions. CHAMP will integrate types of models that are often used separately – groundwater flow, agricultural production and human decisions – into a single tool. This integrated approach will allow researchers, irrigators and other interested parties to model how the complex relationships between social and environmental factors affect water resources.

CHAMP, along with data collected by other project partners through surveys, analysis of public documents, qualitative interviews and behavioral experiments, will help researchers and others better understand whether Autonomous conservation groups are more resilient if their rules respond to changing conditions and are adapted to local needs.

“Successful groundwater conservation requires cooperation among many different users, which makes it difficult to achieve,” Zipper said. “Our understanding of the physics of hydrogeology far exceeds our understanding of how the irrigation community makes water-related decisions and how those decisions ultimately influence water resources and the communities that depend on them. “

KGS’s work will build on both data analysis and modeling efforts conducted in northwest Kansas in the past. Previous KGS work, including studies of the SD-6 LEMA in Sheridan County, has been funded by the Kansas Water Office, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Science Foundation.

— Story by Julie Tollefson

Top photo: Irrigation in Haskell County, 2010. Source: Kansas Geological Survey.

right picture: Jim Butler, principal investigator at KGS, gives a presentation at Hoxie in 2017. Credit: Kansas Geological Survey.