NRCS, conservation districts tackle Ogallala Aquifer
Cheyenne – Over the last several years, James Pike, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) district conservationist in the Cheyenne Field Office, has instituted a collaborative project between NRCS, the Laramie County Conservation District and the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office to work toward conserving water in the Ogallala Aquifer.
“Through the 50s, 60s and 70s, ground water was developed for irrigation around Cheyenne,” said Pike. “Around 43,000 acres are being irrigated under 330 pivots.”
The Ogallala Aquifer Initiative utilizes both funding from the National Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP).
Pike updated the NRCS State Technical Committee on the project during their May 1 meeting.
“The goal of the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, like AWEP, is to stabilize declines in the aquifer,” said NRCS.
With the use of water from the Ogallala Aquifer, water levels have declined significantly over the 40 years that monitoring has taken place.
“We now have a new groundwater study that was conducted by the State Engineer’s Office released several weeks ago that current groundwater has declined as much as 99 feet in one monitoring well at one location since the wells were established over 40 years ago,” Pike explained. “That was a shock to us. That is a major decline.”
Groundwater control area
Since irrigation projects began, the State Engineer’s Office also set up a groundwater control area, instituting monitoring wells.
“We have been monitoring, in some cases, for decades,” Pike added. “All of our monitoring wells show a decline in the water table at varying levels.”
Without a working group in place, NRCS developed a recommendation that groundwater should be their number one source of concern.
“I have enough experience with irrigation water to know that it is a difficult setup and a difficult problem to address,” Pike said.
He began meeting with landowners to assess the level of interest, finding that they were grateful to hear someone addressing the problem.
“We developed a proposal to submit to our national office under the AWEP program,” he explained. “It failed the first time, so we went back and tried again. We were successful in getting funding the second time.”
In the first year $700,000 was granted to the program.
“It is a pretty simple program with simple guidelines,” Pike said. “The landowner agrees to convert their land from irrigated to dryland. We make payments over three years.”
At the same time, landowners must apply for a permit with the State Board of Control to abandon their water.
“The well has to also be addressed,” Pike explained. “The agreement we have with the State Engineer’s Office says, before the last payment is made, the irrigation well must be decommissioned or deferred to domestic or stock use.”
Most landowners taking advantage of the program have deferred their water use to domestic or stock use.
Oil and gas complication
In 2011, when oil and gas exploration began to move in to Laramie County, water became even more of a precious resource.
“When oil and gas people showed up, they wanted water,” Pike commented. “Oil and gas operators tend to tie up more water and gravel than they really need, and they don’t commit to actually paying.”
He continued, “A lot of farmers looked at oil and gas and said, ‘This could be an economic benefit.’”
However, Pike cautioned landowners about the uncertainty of selling water.
“There were still people who wanted guaranteed payments,” Pike said. “We were successful with the program in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, we were successful again, and we got a fourth year of the contract.”
The Ogallala Aquifer Initiative has made incredible positive impacts through both the EQIP and AWEP components.
“We have tracked 2,134 acres with the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative and AWEP,” Pike says. “The Laramie County Conservation District calculated savings at 3,126 acre-feet per year, or 1 billion gallons of water annually.”
Pike emphasized, “This is a permanent reduction in irrigation.”
Jim Cochran of the Laramie County Conservation District calculated, at the inception of the program, that 4,000 acres would have to be converted to dryland to start to see stabilization in the monitoring wells.
“We are halfway there,” Pike added.
Pike also emphasized that cooperation has been an instrumental to the success of the project.
“This is a perfect example of how conservation districts and NRCS work together to accomplish goals,” he said.
This year, NRCS announced that funding is available to continue the project.
Through the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, $400,000 is available to producers in Laramie, Goshen, Platte and Niobrara Counties.
When the new Farm Bill was signed, the AWEP program was discontinued. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) was instituted. Pike hopes the county conservation district and NRCS will try to create the same partnership and apply for that program when the rules are written and it becomes available.
“There is reasonable expectation it will help us to address the Ogallala Aquifer,” Pike said.
Other water efforts
Pike added that the State Engineer’s Office also issued a moratorium on new wells, well enlargements and high-capacity wells and is in the process of developing new regulations for the groundwater control area to continue tackling groundwater problems.
“Some of the recommendations may include increasing the groundwater control area to include the entire county,” Pike said. “There are also restrictions on irrigation and a lot of different components that have been proposed.”
However, Pike also emphasized that the State Engineer’s Office approached farmers and ranchers to develop their own proposals. Meetings were held to gather landowner input, and proposals were submitted.
“Every farm group and every private engineering firm who testified referenced that the AWEP program is part of the solution,” he said. “We are trying to come up with a way to continue doing what we are doing.”
“We don’t know how many acres we will have to retire to get stabilization of groundwater levels.” Pike commented. “We aren’t trying to put people out of business, but we are trying to create stability, and that isn’t where we are now.”