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Drought causes unprecedented drop in groundwater levels
There's no such thing as a free lunch, and that also goes for the glass of water that comes with it.
Entities dealing with downstream demands for water have hit on a solution that may not really be a solution at all, judging by the 2013 Nebraska Statewide Groundwater Level Monitoring Report.
When Kansas demanded more Republican River water from Nebraska, and Colorado faced the same demands, one of the solutions they found was to convert groundwater into surface water, such as the Rock Creek project in the Upper Republican Natural Resources District, the N-CORPE project in the Middle Republican NRD and a similar project in Colorado.
By pumping water into the river, the agencies hoped to meet their responsibility under the Republican River Compact to deliver water to downstream users.
The problem is, groundwater is just as limited a commodity as is the water already flowing in the river.
The new groundwater report showed significant groundwater level declines throughout Nebraska.
From spring 2012 to spring 2013, every county in Nebraska, with the exception of Grant, Hooker and Thomas, experienced a water level decline greater than a foot. Some parts of Nebraska, including a spot in northern Perkins County, showed a one-year water decline of nearly 25 feet.
"That is unprecedented since we have been keeping records for water-level changes," said Aaron Young, groundwater resources coordinator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
"Almost the entire state -- with the exception of a small area in the Sandhills -- saw declines last year, and even then, I would suspect that in the next year or two, we're going to see some substantial groundwater level declines in the Sandhills as well."
On average, one had to go 2.54 feet farther down into wells before hitting water in spring 2013 than a year before, Young said, because of increased groundwater pumping and decreased recharge from precipitation.
"An average one-year decline of this magnitude has never been recorded before in the state," Young said.
Nebraska experienced the worst drought ever during 2012, 12-16 inches below normal precipitation in Nebraska, as well as the highest average temperatures.
"The extreme drought resulted in dry wells, municipal water shortages and water restrictions throughout the state," Young said.
If drought continues, as it shows every sign of doing, there is no way we can continue to pump water out of the ground at the current rate.
Whether it's for our personal use, swimming pools, lawns and gardens, or to support the agricultural endeavors that are vital to our Southwest Nebraska and Northwest Kansas economy, water is an irreplaceable ingredient that we must learn to use wisely.
A chart of the changes in water levels is available here.