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McNair Scholars Program

Erin O'Brien, M.S.


Education: Bachelor of Science in biological and agricultural engineering (May 2002)

Master of Science in engineering from Vanderbilt University

McNair Project: Sustainability of the Ogallala Aquifer (2001)

Mentor: John Harrington, Ph.D.

The Ogallala aquifer has spurred development in the High Plains. A part of the High Plains aquifer system, the Ogallala is the largest and most heavily developed aquifer in the world. This paper looks at the sustainability of the Ogallala aquifer with a focus on the demands that irrigation imposes.

My study looked at the High Plains region with a focus on southwest Kansas. Irrigated agriculture has been depleting the fossil waters of the Ogallala for several years. Various estimates tell how much water is available to be withdrawn from different regions of the aquifer. The dwindling water supply leads to questions about the future of the economy of western Kansas, which relies heavily on agriculture.

Land availability and beneficial weather conditions led to an influx of settlers in the Ogallala region. Drought spurred the development of irrigation technology. After World War II, Plains farming was changed into agribusiness. Since then, the amount of irrigated acreage has dramatically increased. Increases in irrigation pumpage have led to questions about the sustainability of the Ogallala aquifer.

Increased technology paired with federal safeguards helped increase the number of irrigators. The rapid expansion of irrigated agriculture in Kansas led to the development of the Groundwater Management District Act, which helped set up local districts to control and regulate groundwater usage. The local districts have implemented guidelines and regulations, which irrigators must follow.

Technological advances, water conservation, and legal actions are helping increase the sustainability of the Ogallala. Only time will tell if it is enough.