Published: Oct. 19, 2010

Shaping the future of the High Plainsí water supply

Contact(s): Layne Cameron Media Communications office: (517) 353-8819 cell: (765) 748-4827 Layne.Cameron@cabs.msu.edu

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Researchers at Michigan State University are helping shape the future of the High Plains’ water supply.

The Ogallala Aquifer is a vast underground system that spans from South Dakota to Texas with smaller portions in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. It is one of the world’s largest aquifer systems, storing nearly as much water as Lake Erie and Lake Huron combined. Yet this seemingly limitless water supply, a key component supporting the Great Plains’ bountiful agriculture production, is shrinking.

The National Science Foundation has awarded MSU $1.2 million to help shape a course to better manage this important natural resource. The multidisciplinary team of researchers, led by hydrogeologist David Hyndman, will use the four-year grant to develop a sustainability plan based on economic, sociological and geographic issues affecting the aquifer.

“For more than 80 years, the Ogallala Aquifer has been used for irrigation, and the withdrawals far exceed its ability to replenish itself,” said Hyndman, who worked with the Kansas Geological Survey on this project. “We are on an unsustainable course and must make difficult changes if we are to keep using some of the best agricultural land in the country.”

Researchers will review decades of scientific data. They also will study the interactions between the region’s landscape, atmosphere and socioeconomic systems and link this data with climate, hydrology, vegetation and economic models.

The end result will produce predictions and impact assessments covering a range of potential solutions. Community and government leaders will be able to implement the team’s forecasts to adjust land management policies and to make strides toward sustainable water-use practices.

“Navigating a patchwork of state laws, regulations and economics means any change will require complex solutions,” Hyndman said. “And since scientific solutions don’t exist in a vacuum, our plan will also address social and economic variables.”

The MSU research team comprises Jinhua Zhao, associate professor of agricultural economics; Stephen Gasteyer, assistant professor of sociology; Nathan Moore, assistant professor of geography; Shiyuan Zhong, associate professor of geography; Warren Wood, John Hannah Visiting Professor of Integrative Studies; and Anthony Kendall, geological sciences research associate.

The grant is funded through the NSF’s Water Sustainability and Climate program.

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