USDA is adding $8 million to the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative in Fiscal Year 2016 to help farmers and ranchers conserve billions of gallons of water, the agency announced Monday.
The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest aquifer in the U.S. and includes nearly all of Nebraska and large sections of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.
Covering nearly 174,000 square miles, it supports the production of nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the U.S. and supplies 30% of all water used for irrigation in the U.S.
USDA says it has suffered in recent years from increased periods of drought, and water levels in the region are dropping at an unsustainable rate. Additional funds in the Initiative will help landowners build resilience and better manage water, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
He added that since 2011, USDA has invested $74 million in helping more than 1,600 agricultural producers conserve water on 341,000 acres through the program.
Monday's announcement adds two new focus areas to the OAI for fiscal year 2016, while continuing support for seven ongoing projects.
These projects include improving the efficiency of irrigation systems; building soil health by using cover crops and no-till practices that allow the soil to hold water longer and buffer roots from higher temperatures; and implementing prescribed grazing to relieve pressure on stressed vegetation.
The new focus areas include the Middle Republican Natural Resource District in Nebraska and the Oklahoma Ogallala Aquifer Initiative.
In Nebraska, the project addresses groundwater quantity and quality concerns. The focus will be in areas where groundwater pumping contributes to high levels of stream flow depletion.
Priority will be given to areas where groundwater pumping contributes to more than 48% of the overall aquifer depletion rate. The project will enable participants to voluntarily implement practices to conserve irrigation water and improve groundwater quality.
Oklahoma's project will help landowners implement conservation practices that decrease water use. It includes an educational component that will educate citizens about water conservation and conservation systems. These systems include converting from irrigated to dryland farming and conservation practices that improve irrigation water management; crop residue and tillage management; nutrient and pesticide management, and grazing systems; and playa wetland restorations.
The targeted area includes places where great amounts of water are consumed. Focal areas will be heavily-populated municipalities in the aquifer region.
How OAI is working
The Natural Resources Conservation Service's analysis of Environmental Quality Incentives Program conservation projects in the region, including those implemented through OAI, estimated reduced water withdrawals of at least 1.5 million acre-feet, or 489 billion gallons of water, from 2009 through 2013.
Projects also resulted in an energy savings equivalent of almost 33 million gallons of diesel fuel due to reduced irrigation, NRCS reported.
This investment, and previous investments in this project and others, help farmers implement conservation practices that improve water use efficiency and build long term health of working crop, pasture, and range lands, USDA said.
These practices include building soil health by using cover crops and no-till, which allow the soil to hold water longer and buffer roots from higher temperatures; improving the efficiency of irrigation systems; and implementing prescribed grazing to relieve pressure on stressed vegetation.