National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program - High Plains Regional Groundwater (HPGW) Study

THE HIGH PLAINS AQUIFER, USA: GROUNDWATER DEVELOPMENT AND SUSTAINABILITY

By Kevin F. Dennehy; U.S. Geological Survey

The High Plains Aquifer, located in the United States, is one of the largest freshwater aquifers in the world and is threatened by continued decline in water levels and deteriorating water quality. Understanding the physical and cultural features of this area is essential to assessing the factors that affect this groundwater resource. About 27% of the irrigated land in the United States overlies this aquifer, which yields about 30% of the nation's groundwater used for irrigation of crops including wheat, corn, sorghum, cotton, and alfalfa. In addition, the aquifer provides drinking water to 82% of the 2.3 million people who live within the aquifer boundary. The High Plains Aquifer has been significantly impacted by human activities. Groundwater withdrawals from the aquifer exceed recharge in many areas, resulting in substantial declines in groundwater level. Residents once believed that the aquifer was an unlimited resource of high-quality water, but they now face the prospect that much of the water may be gone in the near future. Also, agricultural chemicals are affecting the groundwater quality. Increasing concentrations of nitrate and salinity can first impair the use of water for public supply and then affect its suitability for irrigation. A variety of technical and institutional measures are currently being planned and implemented across the aquifer area in an attempt to sustain this groundwater resource for future generations. However, because groundwater withdrawals remain high and water quality impairments are becoming more commonplace, the sustainability of the High Plains Aquifer is uncertain.

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