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Exploration Place Aquifer Exhibit Takes Visitors Inside A Vital Resource

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Nadya Faulx
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KMUW
A family walks through Exploration Place's aquifer exhibit on its opening day last month.

Kansas’ main water resource is depleting faster than it can be refilled—but we as consumers have a significant stake in conserving what’s there. That’s the takeaway of a new Exploration Place exhibit that looks at the High Plains aquifer, and our relationship to it. KMUW’s Nadya Faulx takes us along on a tour.

Kansas is one of eight states that sits on top of the 174,000-square-mile High Plains Aquifer. It includes the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas, the Great Bend Prairie Aquifer east of that, and the Equus Beds Aquifer that sits beneath Wichita.

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Credit United States Geological Survey
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A map of the High Plains Aquifer.

But when Exploration Place started research for its new aquifer exhibit, they realized how many people aren’t aware of just how important the resource is.

“One of the first things we found out is that many people don’t know what an aquifer is…so at the beginning of the aquifer, we have, 'What is an Aquifer," says director of special projects Laurel Zhang, pointing to the plaque that opens the exhibit.

So...what is an aquifer?

“It’s not an underground lake or stream like many people imagine it to be," she says. "It’s more like water absorbed into a sponge. It’s sand and gravel that holds water underground, so when you dig a hole, there’s empty space and the water fills in from there, but we don’t actually have an underground lake per se.”

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Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
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KMUW
The entrance to the "aquifer."

Zhang is leading the way through a narrow passageway that opens into the multi-part exhibit in the center of the museum’s “Exploring Our Only Home” gallery. It's a brightly lit, enclosed space--technically a cave, but for these purposes, it's the inside of an aquifer, lined with illustrations of rock layers.

The exhibit was funded by a nearly $148,000 federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It explains not just what the aquifer is, but how it functions and how fast we’re using it.

"One of the cool things and one of my more favorite pieces is helping people understand what has happened with the aquifer over time," Zhang says.

On one wall, a large display shows the aquifer’s water levels over the years. Turn a crank, and a drill drives deeper into the ground—106 feet below the surface in 1940, to 125 feet in 1960, and farther down.

"We have this lovely drill that goes down telling us where the water has been in the past," she says. "So during the Dust Bowl, we think of that as one of the waterless periods in Kansas’ history, yet it was only 74 feet from the surface to the top of the aquifer at that point."

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Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
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KMUW
An interactive display shows the aquifer's water levels over the decades. During the Dust Bowl, it was just 74 feet from the surface.

She says consumers are using the aquifer at a rate of 11 inches per year—but it only naturally recharges at about half that rate.

One activity in the exhibit asks visitors a few questions about their water habits—if they leave the water running when they brush their teeth, how long their showers last, how many times a week they do laundry. It then tells them how much water they use each year—and how they can conserve more.

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Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
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KMUW
A family looks at a display showing the pathways of pollutants that can end up in the aquifer.

“People in the U.S. use far more water than we understand that we’re using, and we don’t know that that’s not the norm in other places," Zhang says. "We in many ways have stopped thinking about it, and one of the things we’re trying to do is draw our attention back to that. We need to be good stewards of what we have.”

Today, there’s no simple answer for how much of the aquifer is left, but Zhang says it’s not the same depth in all locations.

“There’s some parts in Kansas that have already passed the useful life of their aquifer," she says.

And once the aquifer is gone, only nature can truly recharge it.

It all may sound dire. A recent National Geographic article asks, “What happens to the U.S. Midwest when the water’s gone?” Last year, the Kansas City Star called it “a drying shame.”

But the aquifer exhibit isn’t trying to scare visitors.

"We can’t stop using water," Zhang says. "This is not an exhibit about guilt, because all life requires water, humans require water and I’m not planning to stop drinking it, I don’t know about you."

But, Zhang says, we can be smarter about how we use water. As part of the federal grant Exploration Place received, the museum will conduct surveys to see what changes visitors made—if any—after seeing the exhibit.

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Follow Nadya Faulx on Twitter @NadyaFaulx.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Nadya Faulx is KMUW's Digital News Editor and Reporter, which means she splits her time between working on-air and working online, managing news on KMUW.org, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She joined KMUW in 2015 after working for a newspaper in western North Dakota. Before that she was a diversity intern at NPR in Washington, D.C.