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Ogallala, Nebraska

North Platte, Nebraska

November 12, 2022

Ogallala is a city in and the county seat of Keith County, Nebraska. The population was 4,737 at the 2010 census. In the days of the Nebraska Territory, the city was a stop on the Pony Express and later along the transcontinental railroad. The Ogallala Aquifer was named after the city.

Ogallala first gained fame as a terminus for cattle drives that traveled from Texas to the Union Pacific railhead located there. These trails are known as the Western or Great Western trails. The Union Pacific Railroad reached Ogallala on May 24, 1867. The city itself was not laid out until 1875 and not incorporated until 1884.  The town's name comes from the Oglala Sioux tribe.


Ogallala is in the US Mountain Time Zone (UTC−7/-6). Ogallala is close to Lake McConaughy, a large man-made lake and a state recreation area with sandy beaches, boating and swimming. The South Platte River runs through Ogallala.


Ogallala has a dry humid continental climate(Köppen Dfa), bordering on cold semi-arid with an annual average precipitation of 20.40 in (518 mm). Winters are cold, while summers are hot and often stormy. Precipitation is greatest in the late spring and summer, with winter being the driest part of the year.


2010 census

As of the census of 2010, there were 4,737 people, 2,100 households, and 1,298 families living in the city. The population density was 955.0 inhabitants per square mile (368.7/km2). There were 2,397 housing units at an average density of 483.3 per square mile (186.6/km2). The racial makeup of the city was 94.6% White, 0.2% African American, 0.6% Native American, 0.4% Asian, 2.2% from other races, and 2.0% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 7.5% of the population.

There were 2,100 households, of which 27.5% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 48.0% were married couples living together, 9.6% had a female householder with no husband present, 4.2% had a male householder with no wife present, and 38.2% were non-families. 34.1% of all households were made up of individuals, and 14.6% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.23 and the average family size was 2.85.

The median age in the city was 43.7 years. 23.6% of residents were under the age of 18; 6.8% were between the ages of 18 and 24; 21.4% were from 25 to 44; 28.3% were from 45 to 64; and 20.1% were 65 years of age or older. The gender makeup of the city was 48.8% male and 51.2% female.

Point of interest

The Ogallala post office contains an oil-on-canvas mural, titled Long Horns, painted in 1938 by Frank Mechau. Murals were produced from 1934 to 1943 in the United States through the Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts, of the Treasury Department.


The Ogallala Aquifer is a shallow table aquifer that sits under eight states ranging from South Dakota south to Texas and New Mexico. It is a major source of irrigation water throughout the region.

Formation of the Ogallala Aquifer

Before the Aquifer formed, the land now known as the Great Plains looked nothing like it does now. It was a land of low hills, shallow valleys, and meandering streams. East-bound streams coming down from the Rockies began depositing sand, gravel, silt, and clay into the valleys and streams. Over millions of years, the sediment filled and covered the dips and slopes of the land, forming the flat land now known as the Great Plains.

The porous sediment layers in these ancient valleys form the Ogallala Aquifer. Underground water moves from the northwest towards the southeast as water comes down from the Rockies and sinks down into the sediment layers.

Man's Use Of The Ogallala Aquifer

The early 1900s saw the first uses of the Ogallala's ancient waters for irrigation. The amount drawn from the Aquifer was minimal up until the 1930s.

A series of droughts in the 1930s changed it. Vast areas of cultivated land saw very little rain. The soil uncovered by cultivation became dry and friable. As the winds came, the soil became airborne, creating the infamous storms of the Dust Bowl.

To keep farmers on these fertile lands, the federal government began subsidizing irrigation projects. Improved drilling technologies plus subsidization prompted the development of vast tracks of farmland, all dependent on water from the Aquifer.

By 1980, the Aquifer fed about 20 percent of the irrigated land in the U.S. It provided 30 percent of the irrigation ground water used in the U.S. It provided the crops that fed over 40 percent of the cattle in the U.S.

Unfortunately, all the pumping from the Aquifer has had a negative impact. Since about 1950, the amount of water in the Aquifer has dropped by nine percent (as of 2014). Depletion of water levels is only increasing with two percent lost between 2001 and 2009.

Because of over pumping the Aquifer, many areas of the High Plains have literally run out of water. The Texas Panhandle has seen the largest drop in Aquifer levels. Some areas have returned to the dry arid land that it once was.

Improved irrigation technology and increased energy costs have caused the rate of pumping to decline in recent years. However, drought conditions throughout the High Plains has increased pressure on the Aquifer to sustain current crop levels. The debate on how to solve the problem continues.

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