The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Thursday that it will direct $6.5 million in federal funds to the Great Plains region to help farmers and ranchers conserve water in the Ogallala Aquifer.
The enormous underground aquifer supplies water to eight states from South Dakota to Texas, but it is quickly being drained. Seventy percent of the Ogallala’s water will be gone within 50 years if nothing is done, according to a Kansas State University study.
In some places, wells already have run dry.
The funding announced by USDA on Thursday is substantially less than previous years, when the agency allocated as much as $19 million for its Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, a water conservation effort established in 2011. The reduction is the result of lower funding in the last congressional farm bill, as well as the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.
The money this year will be concentrated on conservation programs in five states that rely on the aquifer, mainly for irrigation and other agricultural uses: Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas.
The programs aim to extend the life of the aquifer by saving billions of gallons of water per year.
“This work not only expands the viability of the Ogallala Aquifer but also helps producers across the Great Plains strengthen their agricultural operations,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement.
The Ogallala sprawls over 174,000 square miles. It provides water for a fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the United States, according to USDA.
Once depleted, the aquifer would take an estimated 6,000 years to refill naturally.
Kansas’ portion of the 2015 funds likely will be a little over $1 million, down from $2.5 million in 2014.
The money will go to farmers in Kansas to help them convert their irrigated cropland to dryland farming in specific areas where the aquifer has declined the most, and where the landscape is most likely to respond to conservation measures.
The goal is to save 1.8 billion gallons of water in the state over four years.
USDA’s Ogallala Initiative has invested $66 million since 2011 to help farmers and ranchers conserve water on more than 325,000 acres.
Even before the decline in funding, the agency’s conservation programs in Kansas draw far more application requests than there were funds available, said Joel Willhoft, a USDA resource conservationist in Hays, Kan.
Many applicants already have run out of water, or are close to running out, Willhoft said.
“The ones that come to us are the ones that have a high level of concern, and they either ask for our technical assistance or financial assistance or most times both,” he said.
This year, each applicant for assistance will have to sign an agreement to reduce average water use by 10 percent, Willhoft said.