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Measuring depth to water

2/23/2014

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

ST. FRANCIS -- Results soon will be made public from what was a whirlwind tour through western Kansas as an entourage of Kansas Geological Survey employees measured hundreds of wells tapping into the Ogallala Aquifer.

"They went down," KGS water level manager Brownie Wilson said of Ogallala wells measured by the agency's crew in January. "They weren't as bad as they were in past years."

Some wells, especially those in central Kansas, greatly were helped by big rains in July and August.

It's a daunting task, measuring nearly 1,400 wells, and that's why the Kansas Geological Survey shares the duties with the Division of Water Resources.

But it's the KGS that ventures into far western Kansas in early January, dropping a measuring tape hundreds of feet -- in some cases -- into the ground until it reaches water.

Some of the wells have been measured for years, as far back as 1964, when the U.S. Geological Survey first managed the program. KGS took it over in 1995.

As in previous year, KGS interim director Rex Buchanan was among the crew of eight rushing from place to place to measure the wells.

Buchanan's route included wells a stone's throw from both the Nebraska and Colorado borders.

This year, however, measurements were entered into a smartphone, uploaded to a in-car computer, which then was uploaded to computers at survey headquarters in Lawrence.

They also started using a GPS-based mapping system, following directions on the phones they were using.

The actual measuring, however, hasn't changed much.

Buchanan, for example, first had to find an access hole in the pump housing. He then used blue chalk on the first few feet of the measuring tape, which he then uncoiled down the hole, frequently bumping into obstructions along the way. When the tape quit dropping, he could tell it hit water, and the process was reversed, winding the tape back up.

At a well west of St. Francis, Buchanan measured a decline of less than a foot compared to last year.

"A foot a year is real common in a lot of these wells," he said.

The KGS measures approximately 400 wells in a matter of days. The rest are measured by DWR.

"They do the ones that are close to regional offices," Buchanan said.

Along the way, he didn't see the big declines that were seen in previous years, although some measured sharp drops.

"Two years ago, we saw big declines in southwestern Kansas," he said. "This time around, things felt like they were all over the place.

"It got a little bit unpredictable."

The wells are measured in early January because that's when they're not running.

There still were a few, however, continuing to run, sometimes used to water cattle.

Buchanan said one well north of McDonald was down 2 feet from a year earlier, "because it just shut off."

That's why he and others caution against comparing year-to-year measurements, even though that's frequently the case -- even by the KGS.

Instead, he suggests looking at the data in terms of three- to five-year trends.