US Geological Survey


Date of this Version

July 2001


Water-Resources Investigations Report 00–4254.


The High Plains aquifer underlies 174,000 square miles in parts of eight States and includes eight primary hydrogeologic units, including the well-known Ogallala Formation. The High Plains aquifer is an important resource, providing water for 27 percent of the Nation’s irrigated agricul¬tural lands in an otherwise dry landscape. Since the 1980’s there has been concern over the sustainability of the aquifer due to water-level declines caused by substantial pumping. Water quality of the aquifer is a more recent concern. As part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water-Quality Assessment Program, historical water-quality data have been gathered for the High Plains Regional Ground-Water Study Area into a retrospective data base, which can be used to evaluate the occurrence and distribution of water-quality constituents of concern.

Data from the retrospective data base verify that nitrate, pesticides, and dissolved solids (salinity) are important water-quality concerns in the High Plains study area. Sixteen percent of all measured nitrate concentrations were larger than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking-water standard of 10 milligrams per liter. In about 70 percent of the counties within the High Plains study area, nitrate concentrations for 1980–98 were significantly larger than for 1930–69. While nitrate concentrations are largest where depth to water is shallow, concentrations also have increased in the Ogallala Formation where depth to water is large. Pesticide data primarily are available only in the northern half of the study area. About 50 pesticides were detected in the High Plains study area, but only four pesticides (atrazine, alachlor, cyanazine, and simazine) had concentrations exceeding a drinking-water stan-dard. The occasional detection of pesticides in deeper parts of the Ogallala Formation indicates that contamination pathways exist. Dissolved solids, which are a direct measure of salinity, had 29 percent of measured concentrations in excess of the secondary drinking-water standard of 500 milligrams per liter. Comparison of dissolved-solids concentrations prior to 1980 to concentra¬tions after 1980 indicates dissolved-solids concentrations have increased in the alluvial valleys of the Platte, the Republican, and the Arkansas Rivers, as well as in the Ogallala Formation–South hydrogeologic unit.

Water-quality results indicate that human activities are affecting the water of the High Plains aquifer. Because there is a potential for water quality to become impaired relative to the historical uses of the aquifer, water quality needs to be considered when evaluating the sustain¬ability of the High Plains aquifer. Data collected as part of the High Plains Regional Ground-Water Study will help to fill in gaps in water-quality information and provide additional information for understanding the factors that govern ambient water quality.