The Ogallala aquifer, one of the world’s largest fresh groundwater resources (175,000 square miles/​112 million acres), is heavily relied upon by communities in portions of eight U.S. states. Most of the water pumped from the Ogallala aquifer is used for agriculture, by far the chief driver of the region’s economy. Precipitation, the main source of water recharge in the region, is limited and insufficient to replenish the aquifer relative to the amounts being withdrawn. Decades of pumping from the Ogallala aquifer have steadily and significantly lowered the groundwater table in much of the region.

Local and state-​level policies have generally treated the Ogallala as an essentially finite resource which can be mined for “beneficial use,” with that use bounded by the expectation that some percentage of water volume (40%, 50%…) relative to pre-​development of the aquifer resource must remain over defined periods of time (i.e ~50 or 100 years into the future). Today, widespread recognition of the aquifer’s water quantity and quality declines is generating significant concern about the near- and long-​term economic security and longevity of communities in the region.

Click here to access USGS’s June 2017 report on the Ogallala aquifer and changes in groundwater levels from pre-​development to 2015 and 2013 – 15

The challenges facing the Ogallala Aquifer region today are relatively well defined. We know how much groundwater is in the aquifer and how much it has declined since irrigation started with sufficient accuracy to identify key depletion hotspots and anticipated rates of decline moving forward. 

What has not yet been solved is how we will respond as a region to these challenges in a way that maximizes water use efficiency and perhaps even stabilizes groundwater levels.

For some communities, options exist for improving water conservation practices to achieve sustainable pumping rates. For many communities, the conversations are more difficult as they will involve transitions to and acceptance of approaches to management that use less water. A coordinated approach involving the efforts of a wide variety of stakeholders is needed to identify and encourage shifts in field and irrigation management, local and national policy, regional investment, and other initiatives with potential to preserve and extend the usable life of this vital resource.

OWCAP is an interdisciplinary regional research and outreach project focused on helping to address issues of water decline and long-​term agricultural sustainability in the High Plains. OWCAP is engaging in interdisciplinary research and multi-​state outreach with producers, local groundwater management groups and a wide range of other stakeholders at the local, State and Federal level. Our team includes more than 40 university researchers and Extension specialists along with their students and post-​docs, who are based in 6 states (at 9 institutions and 6 hub agricultural experiment stations). We are motivated to help build the capacity of the region’s agricultural sector to adapt in response to critical challenges related to the Ogallala’s decline.

OWCAP Project Objectives

This USDA-​NIFA funded project, which will run through 2020, has four main objectives:

  1. Integrate hydrologic crop, soil, and climate models and databases
  2. Develop and improve understanding of successful, innovative practices related to improving water use efficiency
  3. Identify incentives and policies to increase the adoption of practical and effective adaptive strategies
  4. Enable the adoption of tools and strategies for improved water use

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Learn more:

OWCAP research | OWCAP outreach | OWCAP partnerships