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Lab to Cab How Sorghum Can Protect the Ogallala

By Jennifer Blackburn Water·A transparent, odorless, tasteless liquid. T

his precious resource seems simple by defi nition but is absolutely critical to most living things, and its value to this earth may

be most prevalent this year as 2011 has been anything but easy for farmers and ranchers aff ected by the drought.

The Sorghum Belt covers a large area, and its lifeblood is the Ogallala Aquifer—one of the largest aquifer systems in the world. This water table stretches across South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas, covering ap- proximately 174,000 square miles.

DID YOU KNOW? The Ogalla Aquifer stretches across eight states, covering 174,000 square miles.

has taken its toll on the water supply and aff ected it in a very dramatic way—this year especially.”

Natural recharge to the Ogallala Aquifer occurs primarily through the percola- tion of precipitation through the soils and underlying sediments to the water table. In areas south of the Ca- nadian River, it is gen- erally recognized that playa lakes are the

primary points of most natural recharge. This

year, however, has off ered

Approximately 95 percent of the water pumped from the Ogallala is used for ir- rigation. In past droughts, conservationists have seen that when agriculture producers, out of necessity, increased pumpage of water for irrigation to supplement pre- cipitation, it resulted in an increased rate of water level decline.

While the eff ects from this year’s pumping remain to be seen, one thing is certain. Not even the help of irriga- tion water could save many crops during this tormenting drought.

Gary Harshberger, chairman of the Kansas Water Author- ity and sorghum farmer from Minneola, Kan., said the past two years have put a lot of strain on the water supply.

“We’ve had two dry years with very litt le recharge,” said Harshberger.

“There has been a lot of pumping and a lot of meters were over pumped, which


litt le opportunity for recharge with average yearly rainfall levels falling far below normal in many regions.

“As an irrigated and dry- land farmer, I think water is something everyone should be passionate, concerned and knowledgeable about,” said


As chairman of the Kansas Water Au- thority, Harshberger said his responsibili- ties cover a wide variety of water-related is- sues outside of irrigation and groundwater, but his primary goal is to ensure the value of water is being utilized toward its best economic return.

“Every drop of water is valuable, and we need to use water wisely in a way that benefi ts producers and economic growth in our state,” he said. “Grain sorghum plays a role in that.”

Sorghum has long been touted as a water-sipping crop that is naturally drought tolerant, which was increasingly seen as a result of hybrid vigor in 1956. In fact, sorghum

SORGHUM Grower Fall 2011

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