COLBY, KANSAS — The Ogallala Aquifer is a large underground water resource that sits below parts of seven U.S. states in the Midwest. The aquifer is used to provide fresh water to people and to irrigate crops in the region. But continuing to use the water for the agriculture industry could eventually deplete the aquifer, according to a Kansas State University study. Kansas farmers are working to preserve it for future generations.
Mitchell Baalman's farm outside Hoxie, Kansas is about as rural as you can get.
"We're kind of out here on our own. Not a lot of populace," he said.
And not a lot of rain, due to a prolonged drought.
"We're the eternal optimists, us farmers out here in western Kansas," Baalman said. "We always think it's going to get better."
Baalman farms land that has been in his family for four generations. His father was born during the infamous Dust Bowl in the 1930s, when the farmland dried out, dusted up, and drove people away.
"We're probably almost to those circumstances right now," he said.
But what makes the current drought different from the Dust Bowl at the Baalman family farm is the Ogallala Aquifer.
Out in the heart of his wheat fields, an industrial pump draws water out of a well tapped into the massive underground aquifer.
The water reaches an above-ground "pivot" system that slowly moves in a circular pattern over the planted crops. Baalman says it is a major improvement over the old pipe systems that used to flood the farmland.
"Ten years ago, we might have averaged 700 to 800 gallons per minute wells," he said. "Today, in 2014, we're probably averaging 400."
Baalman is proud of those figures. He is keenly aware that the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer could ultimately drive his family off the land.
"I started realizing the importance of water when I realized that my boys - and everyone else's kids - want to move back to these small towns," he said. "To keep bringing the populace back to these small communities, we have to have the water."
"It's an emotional issue, I think, for anyone that works in water," said Katherine Wilkins-Wells, general manager of the Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District 4. "It's everything to these people and to the people that work in it. Without water, we are not existing."
There are five such districts in Kansas, governed by local boards, which include farmers like Baalman. The districts work with farmers on ways to curb overall water use.
"There's a technology that they're looking at - where the center pivot will go around the field, and will increase its water use or decrease it as it's talking to a computer to a moisture probe that's in the ground, and those moisture probes are telling the sprinklers when they need to be on and when they need to be off to get water to the roots as quick as possible," Wilkins-Wells said.
Ever the eternal optimist, Baalman is confident in the future of his farm, thanks to good crop planning and water conservation.
"It'll rain sometime, and all we hope is we have the right amount of fertilizer, the right hybrid out there, the correct crop out there to utilize that water at the time," he said. "My dad went through it. My grandpa went through it. We're just going through it now."
He hopes his efforts will ensure the Ogallala Aquifer is a viable water source, one his own children can - and will - someday depend on.