In 1998, the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program began a regional study of water quality in the High Plains aquifer. The High Plains aquifer underlies an area of about 174,000 square miles in parts of eight States. Because of its large size, the High Plains aquifer has been divided into three regions: the Southern High Plains, Central High Plains, and Northern High Plains (fig. 1A). Although an assessment of water quality in each of the three regions is planned, the initial focus will be the Central High Plains aquifer.
Anyone who has flown over the Central High Plains in the summer and has seen the large green circles associated with center pivot sprinklers (fig. 2) knows that irrigated agriculture is a widespread land use. Pesticides and fertilizers applied on those irrigated fields will not degrade ground-water quality if they remain in or above the root zone (fig. 3). However, if those chemicals move downward through the unsaturated zone to the water table, they may degrade the quality of the ground water. Water is the principal agent for transporting chemicals from land surface to the water table, and in the semiarid Central High Plains, irrigation often represents the most abundant source of water during the growing season.
One objective of NAWQA's High Plains Regional Ground-Water study is to evaluate the effect of irrigated agriculture on the quality of recently recharged water in the Ogallala Formation of the Central High Plains aquifer (figs. 1A and 1B). The Ogallala Formation is the principal geologic unit in the Central High Plains aquifer, and it consists of poorly sorted clay, silt, sand, and gravel that generally is unconsolidated (Gutentag and others, 1984). Approximately 23 percent of the cropland overlying the Ogallala Formation is irrigated (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1999).
The NAWQA Program generally defines recently recharged ground water to be water recharged in the last 50 years. The water table in the Ogallala Formation is separated from overlying land-use practices by as much as 400 feet of unsaturated sediments. Consequently, one may hypothesize that recently recharged water is not present in the formation. The U.S. Geological Survey conducted a reconnaissance study in 1999 to establish (a) if recently recharged water was present in the Ogallala Formation underlying irrigated cropland and (b) if agricultural land-use practices affect water quality. Results from the reconnaissance study will be used to determine whether a full-scale land-use study is warranted.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
A reconnaissance study of the effect of irrigated agriculture on water quality in the Ogallala Formation, Central High Plains Aquifer