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Water-Level Monitoring StudyResources and Information
Water-Level Changes in the High Plains Aquifer—Predevelopment to 1992

Jack T. Dugan, Tim J. McGrath, and Ron B. Zelt

U.S. Geological Survey
Water-Resources Investigations Report 94-4027
Denver, Colorado


Regional variability in water-level change in the High Plains aquifer underlying parts of South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas results from large regional differences in climate, land use, and ground-water withdrawals for irrigation. From the beginning of significant development of the High Plains aquifer for irrigation to 1980, substantial water-level declines have occurred in several areas. The estimated average area-weighted water-level decline from predevelopment (1940) to 1980 for the High Plains was 9.9 feet, an average annual decline of about 0.25 foot. Declines exceeded 100 feet in some parts of the Central and Southern High Plains. Declines were much smaller and less extensive in the Northern High Plains, largely as a result of later irrigation development.

Since 1980, water levels in those areas of large declines in the Central and Southern High Plains have continued to decline, but at a much slower annual rate. The estimated average area-weighted water-level decline from 1980 to 1992 for the entire High Plains was 2.24 feet, which is an average annual decline of about 0.19 foot. The slower rate of decline since 1980, in relation to the rates prior to 1980, is associated with a decrease in ground-water application for irrigated agriculture and greater than normal precipitation. Water-conserving practices and technology, in addition to reductions in irrigated acreages, contributed to the decrease in ground-water withdrawals for irrigation.

Water-level declines exceeding 20 feet since 1980, however, are widespread in parts of southwestern Kansas, east-central New Mexico, and the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles. Widespread declines of 10 to 20 feet and exceeding 20 feet in smaller areas occurred in northeastern Colorado, northwestern Kansas, southwestern Nebraska, and the Nebraska Panhandle from 1980 to 1992. Water-level rises exceeding 20 feet occurred in the extreme Southern High Plains in Texas where precipitation was much greater than normal from 1980 to 1992. Widespread water-level rises of 5 to 10 feet occurred in eastern Nebraska during the same period in association with greater than normal precipitation.

The estimated average area-weighted water-level decline from 1991 to 1992 was 0.55 foot, even though precipitation was well-above normal in 1991 in the High Plains (+1.98 inches). Water-level declines of 3 to 5 feet were widespread in the intensively irrigated areas of the Central and Southern High Plains, particularly southwestern Kansas and the High Plains of Texas. These declines do not appear to be closely related to the 1991 precipitation patterns in these areas. Declines of 1 to 3 feet were common throughout the intensively irrigated areas of the Northern High Plains and the less intensively irrigated areas of the Central and Southern High Plains. Water levels continued to rise, generally 1 to 3 feet, in the extreme southeastern part of the Southern High Plains in Texas. Widely scattered areas of 1- to 3-foot rises also occurred in parts of northeastern and central Nebraska where precipitation was near to slightly greater than normal in 1991.

This report (WRIR 94-4027) is available online.

To obtain a copy of this report, please contact:

USGS Nebraska Water Science Center
5231 South 19th Street
Lincoln, Nebraska 68512-1271
Phone (402) 328-4100
FAX (402) 328-4101

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