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Unsustainable Use of the High Plains Aquifer


Christine M. Carson
Division of Biology
Kansas State University
Casey A. Pennock
Division of Biology
Kansas State University


This case spotlights Great Plains water shortages by focusing on the High Plains Aquifer. This groundwater reservoir provides nearly a third of groundwater used for irrigation in the heartland of the United States and is linked to surface flows (e.g., rivers) that are critical habitat for stream fishes. Unsustainable pumping has exceeded recharge rate leading to water shortages, meaning southern portions of the aquifer may be depleted by 2030 and farmers will be unable to irrigate crops if water rights policies fail to address this issue. In addition to threatening agricultural productivity, Great Plains fish species that rely on water availability and stream connectivity are becoming threatened or endangered due to loss of habitat. In this case study, students assume the role of land manager or land owner and address these issues using data and public opinion to support their position. Following the in-class assignment and group discussions, students are asked to defend their position in persuasive letters. This case targets first or second year undergraduate classes in ecology, environmental science, environmental policy or related disciplines.


  • Understand the complexities and difficulties of making environmental policy decisions.
  • Understand how aquifer depletion impacts human activities and ecological processes.
  • Use data, factual evidence, and public opinion to support a position to write an effective persuasive letter.
  • Understand how the use of aquifers and groundwater impact ecological processes related to fish community ecology.
  • Understand how groundwater is used in agricultural settings.


Great Plains; Ogallala; agriculture; environmental policy; aquifer; fish; ecological communities; shiner; Kansas

Topical Areas

Ethics, Legal issues, Policy issues, Regulatory issues

Educational Level

Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division, Professional (degree program)



Type / Methods

N/A, Demonstration, Dilemma/Decision, Role-Play



Subject Headings

Agriculture  |   Biology (General)  |   Ecology  |   Economics  |   Environmental Science  |   Natural Resource Management  |   Interdisciplinary Sciences  |   Wildlife Management  |  

Date Posted


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The following video(s) are recommended for use in association with this case study.

  • The Ogallala Aquifer
    This video describes how farmers in Kansas and other states above the High Plains Aquifer (Ogallala) are pumping out water for crop irrigation faster than natural seepage of rainwater can replenish it; planning is underway to manage this vital resource for sustainable farming. Running time: 5:37 min. Produced by National Science Foundation (NSF), 2013.