Sponsored By
Kansas Farmer Logo

Declining Ogallala Aquifer could dry up future ag land valuesDeclining Ogallala Aquifer could dry up future ag land values

Kansas ag land values are $3.79 billion larger due to the Ogallala Aquifer. That could dry up.

Jennifer M. Latzke

February 22, 2022

3 Min Read
Center pivot irrigation
IRRIGATION’S VALUE: When considering farmland, buyers look at the stock of groundwater under that irrigated parcel in their bids.Randomphotog/Getty images

For generations, the Ogallala Aquifer has allowed agriculture to flourish in western Kansas. It is estimated that agricultural land values in Kansas are $3.79 billion higher today because of the aquifer supporting crop and livestock production.

Nathan Hendricks and Gabriel Sampson are Kansas State University agricultural economists who released the paper, “The Value of Groundwater in the High Plains Aquifer of Western Kansas,” Feb. 10. They used market values for irrigated and nonirrigated land, as well as aquifer levels, to reveal how much more value irrigation brings to land values in the West.

Land values

The average price of dryland is about $1,662 per acre, with irrigated ground valued 53% over that. When considering farmland, buyers look at the stock of groundwater under that irrigated parcel in their bids, according to Hendricks and Gabel.

“A potential buyer of farmland observes the quality of the land and the expected quantity of water available for present and future irrigation,” according to their paper. “All else equal, a 1-foot change in saturated thickness beneath the parcel can be inferred by buyers as a change in the productive quality of the parcel.”

It’s estimated for each additional 1 foot of saturated water thickness under a parcel of ground, it’s market value increases between $3.42 and $15.86 per acre.

Consider the 2.57 million irrigated acres over the Ogallala Aquifer just in Kansas, and that’s a total valuation — just on water reserves underground — of $8.79 million to $40.76 million for a uniform 1-foot increase in saturated thickness.

Effects of declining wells

As the aquifer depletes under an irrigation well, that well’s capacity also declines, according to the paper. Lower well capacities cost farmers in many ways:

  • higher energy costs and well upkeep to pump limited water from deeper underground

  • reduction of irrigated crop acres on a particular parcel

  • reduction of applied water, which could reduce crop yields

  • switch to less water-intensive crops

These can all result in reduced rental demand for a piece of irrigated land, which can then lead to reduced rental rates. Hendricks and Gabel explain that if the saturated thickness is initially less than 70 feet, if that decreases by 1 foot, the annual returns to the land over that part of the aquifer then drop by 23 cents per acre.

Meanwhile, if the saturated thickness is greater than 70 feet, that same drop of 1 foot of saturation just drops returns to that land by just a nickel per acre. That’s because when well capacity is large, a decrease isn’t felt as soundly as it is in a well with less capacity.

The economists give the example of Wichita County, Kan., with an average saturated thickness of less than 70 feet across the county. The county has roughly 460,000 acres over the aquifer, so a 1-foot decrease in saturated thickness would decrease returns to the land of about $104,400 in that one county.

Economic impacts

The study found that if no changes are made to how the aquifer is utilized, and it continues its rate of depletion, the annual value of returns to land could decrease by $34.1 million by 2050. That is a 5.3% decrease in the returns to cropland. And that means 13.5% of currently irrigated acres would change to dryland production.

But crops aren’t the only agricultural production over the aquifer. Animal feeding operations, large dairies, livestock processing plants and more also depend on that water.

Since the 2012 Census of Agriculture, according to the study, the aquifer has led to an increase in animal sales of $2.4 billion annually and increased the number of cattle on feed by 2.4 million head.

From fertilizer and chemical sales, to farm operating expenditures, to the municipalities that support farmers and ranchers and their families, the aquifer supports it all.

Kansas State Department of Agricultural Economics contributed to this article.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like