Water in Kansas

In most years, precipitation in the form of rain, sleet, or snow is greatest in eastern Kansas and gradually declines toward the west. The wettest spot, on average, gets 45 inches per year and the driest less than 20 inches. As a result, eastern Kansas has more surface waterrivers, creeks, lakes, and wetlands. Few Kansas lakes and ponds are naturally occurring. Most were created when a dam was built across a river or creek and a big pool of water from the stream built up behind the dam.

Normal Annual Precipitation in Kansas
Normal annual precipitation (1961-1990) in Kansas. The area west of the dashed line shows the extent of the High Plains aquifer in Kansas (from Goodin et al., 1995).

Although western Kansas has few rivers and lakes, a vast amount of life-sustaining water has been found underground in aquifers. Known as groundwater, the water in aquifers is not in big underground lakes but in small, interconnecting pores in subsurface rocks and sediment. Not all subsurface rock formations are porous, so only some contain groundwater. Almost all of the water in western and much of central Kansas used for drinking, irrigation of crops, business, and industry comes from the expansive High Plains aquifer that underlies parts of eight states. Thousands of wells drilled in Kansas are used to pump the groundwater out.

Kansas cities and towns are mainly located near rivers or creeks, even in the western half of the state, because water was essential to early settlements. Before the extent of major groundwater sources, such as the High Plains aquifer, had been determined, digging wells in search of water was hit or miss. Towns not on streams were often built near springs.