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High Plains Aquifer Legislation (1-25-05)

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Groundwater levels are a major area of concern in the High Plains Aquifer, which underlies 174,000 square miles of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Large-scale pumping of the aquifer, mostly for agricultural irrigation, has lead to substantial dewatering of the aquifer by more than 100 feet in parts of Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. In order to provide accurate information to policy makers to extend the life of the aquifer, state geological surveys are working to assess and understand the current and future state of the High Plains Aquifer. To aid their efforts, Congress is working on legislation aimed at creating an aquifer-wide approach to the studies and to coordinate efforts of local water agencies with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Recent Action

Legislation is expected to be introduced and considered by the 109th Congress in the near future. Please check back soon for updates.

Previous Action

 

Background

The High Plains Aquifer underlies 174,000 square miles of eight states - Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. The aquifer is unconfined, principally recharged through precipitation, and occurs primarily in the Ogallala Formation, which is generally composed of an unconsolidated sequence of poorly sorted clay, silt, sand, and gravel. Groundwater from the aquifer is used chiefly for agriculture irrigation (accounting for 94% of the groundwater consumption), but other uses include drinking water (supplying 82% of the High Plains' drinking water needs), livestock, mining, and industry. In many areas, withdrawals from the aquifer are greatly exceeding recharge, resulting in large water level decreases. Due largely to advancements in irrigation technology, some parts of the central and southern aquifer have been dewatered by more than 50 percent.

In 1978, the first comprehensive quantitative study of the High Plains Aquifer was carried out by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The Regional Aquifer-System Analysis (RASA) Program succeeded in defining the regional geology, hydrology, and geochemistry of the aquifer, substantially improving understanding of the groundwater flow systems and leading to better management of groundwater resources. While the USGS and state geological surveys continue to study local areas of the aquifer, a comprehensive assessment of the High Plains Aquifer has not occurred since RASA, despite continual dewatering.

In order to understand the regional hydrogeology of the High Plains Aquifer, legislation was introduced last Congress in both the House and the Senate (H.R. 5486 and S. 2773) to authorize the USGS and High Plains Aquifer States to cooperate in creating a comprehensive assessment of the High Plains Aquifer. While the House bill did not make it out of committee, the Senate version of the bill, co-sponsored by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Pete Domenici (R-NM), and Sam Brownback (R-KS), was approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but not voted on by the entire Senate.

On January 23, 2003, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) reintroduced S. 212, which is similar to S. 2773 from the 107th Congress. On March 6, 2003, the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power held a hearing to receive testimony on S. 212., a bill to monitor, map, and model the High Plains Aquifer. On April 7, 2002, S.212 passed the Senate by unanimous consent. The bill was then passed on to the House Committee on Resources.

Although the House Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power held a hearing on October 30th on the High Plains Aquifer bill, the legislation never made it onto the House floor. If lawmakers want to revisit the issue, they will have to reintroduce the bill again in the 109th Congress.

Sources: Hearing Testimony, THOMAS, U.S. Geological Survey.

Contributed by David Millar 2004 AGI/AAPG Fall Semster Intern

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on January 25, 2005.


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