Bob Hooper is fed up. What's going on in western Kansas, he says, is just plain wrong. It's ecological suicide.
"We've made an arbitrary decision that using what little water we have out here to grow corn and raise fat cattle is somehow a wise use of a scarce resource.
"A lot of people are making a lot of money in the short term. But in the long term, it makes no sense at all. We'd rather make money than be good stewards," said Hooper, a retired English teacher and librarian who has spent most of his 62 years in or near Graham County, which is four counties east of Colorado, two south of Nebraska.
No two ways about it, Hooper said, irrigation is destroying western Kansas. It's sapping the region's underground water supply. And once that water's gone, it's gone forever. Hello, buffalo commons.
Hooper's been on his soapbox for longer than most folks in Graham County care to remember. Until now, it was just talk.
But in January, Hooper ascended to chairmanship of the Solomon River Basin Advisory Committee, a state-sanctioned, grass-roots group that helps define water policy in Kansas.
Under his leadership, the committee's 11 members, one of whom is an active irrigator, told the Kansas Water Authority it wanted the basin to reach "sustainable use" -- a general term for matching an area's water use with its rate of natural recharge -- by 2015.
"I was elated," Hooper said. "I thought we'd really accomplished something quite significant."
Knife in the back
Studies have shown the 6,835-square-mile basin could reach sustainable use by cutting irrigation by 3 percent to 4 percent annually for 15 years, Hooper said.
At its February meeting, the state's 12-member Water Authority directed the Kansas Water Office to include the goal of sustainable use in the 2001 Kansas Water Plan, which the Legislature uses to steer state water policy.
But when a working draft of the plan came out in April, Hooper discovered the goal had been diluted by state water bureaucrats in Topeka. The rewritten recommendation called for limiting withdrawals from the Ogallala Aquifer portion of the basin to 3 feet in five years. For the rest of the basin, which draws water from or beneath the Solomon and its tributaries, it proposed a five-year study.
Hooper, a member of the Solomon River Basin Advisory Committee since its inception in 1984, took that as knife in the back.
"Study? We don't need another study," he said. "We all know what the problem is, we're using up a natural resource faster than it replenishes. The only thing that makes sense is to use less. But whenever you try to get something like that in the water plan, it gets edited out."
'Disaster in progress'
At the basin advisory committee's June 7 meeting, members refused to go along with the Topeka rewrite, setting the stage for a battle royal at the next Water Authority meeting, July 12-14 in Salina.
This is the first time a basin advisory committee has balked at endorsing the state water plan, said Al LeDoux, director of the Kansas Water Office. But likewise, the call from Hooper's committee for sustainable use was a first.
"They're going to try to get me to compromise, but I'm not in the mood," Hooper said. "We've got an ecological disaster in progress."
LeDoux doesn't see it that way.
"I think Bob is a concerned citizen who really believes in what he's doing -- and I don't disagree with him on a lot of things," LeDoux said. "But there are things in position in the agriculture and irrigation communities that, well, you just can't do the kinds of things he's talking about and not have a negative effect on them. You can't go cold turkey on these folks."
What's the benefit, LeDoux asked, of using less water if it means destroying the region's economy?
Rewriting the plan
Hooper's call for sustainable use, LeDoux said, has to be tempered with the region's economic and political realities.
"Things are going to change out there -- there isn't any doubt about that," LeDoux said. "But it's going to take awhile, and we need to let that happen."
LeDoux said he approved changing the Solomon committee's proposal. The actual rewriting was handled by water office assistant director Clark Duffy.
"It's the responsibility of the water office to write the plan," Duffy said. "The basin advisory committees play a critical role in the process, but, ultimately, they are just that: advisory."
Duffy said the water office version also calls for sustainable use in the Solomon River basin by 2010 -- five years ahead of Hooper's timetable. But it's only called for in portions that don't draw from the Ogallala Aquifer, which is where most of the water is and the cause of most concern for Hooper's committee.
"Where we disagree is on what should happen in the western one-third of the basin, which is where the most irrigation is," Duffy said.
"In that part of the basin, you'd have to cease all water use to reach sustainable yield; that's how slow the aquifer recharges. I think we can agree that that's an impractical approach."
Such talk is balderdash to Hooper.
"That's a total cop-out on Clark's part," Hooper said. "If it's impractical now, then when does he think it will be practical?
"He and his camp are just scared to death of taking on the vested interests of the irrigation and feedlot industries. And that's understandable, but at some point we're going to have to set a 'when' and a 'where.' We can't keep ducking this."
But the ducking won't stop, he said, until the water office quits prostrating itself to irrigators.
"They're letting the drunks run the liquor store," he said.
Kansas Geological Survey studies show several areas of western Kansas depleting their groundwater supplies within the next 25 to 50 years, if irrigation continues unchecked. In some areas, the water already has declined to levels that make it too expensive to pump.
"There are areas in western Kansas where the aquifer is down 50 to 75 percent," said Bob Buddemeier, a Kansas Geological Survey researcher who has spent the past 10 years studying the Ogallala Aquifer.
"That's caused some to irrigate less or make the switch from corn to wheat, which cuts the pumpage almost in half."
Hooper's cause, Buddemeier said, is hampered by the number of those affected by the depletion.
"The number of people who have run into problems is still very much smaller than those who can keep pumping, so neither the economic impact or societal implications have reached the point of forcing people to change," he said.
"But are we moving in that direction? Yes, we are. For some, that day may come tomorrow, for others it may be the next day and for the guy in the next county it may sometime the next century, but it is coming."
Big sucking sound
Irrigation consumes huge amounts of water. Consider: The city of Lawrence (population 93,000) used 11,972 acre feet of water last year, according to the Kansas Division of Water Resources; Hooper's Graham County (population 3,100) used more than 12,000 acre feet, the vast majority for irrigation.
Thirteen counties in western Kansas each pumped more that 100,000 acre feet last year. Finney County (Garden City) led the pack with more than 300,000 acre feet.
An acre foot equals 325,851 gallons -- the amount of water it takes to cover one acre one foot deep.
Statewide in 1998, about 84 percent of the water used in Kansas was for crop irrigation, according to the Division of Water Resources, and most of that came from slowly recharging aquifers.
Hooper hopes his dispute with the water office will force the state to reconsider its irrigation addiction.
"Let's put this out in the public forum and say 'OK, people of Kansas, do you want to deplete a natural resource that's millions of years old within the life span of one or two men?' Let's have that debate, the sooner the better," he said.
Buddemeier said he's ready for that debate, too.
"I'm sure I don't agree with Bob Hooper on a lot of things, but on this particular instance he's raising an issue that definitely needs to be discussed," Buddemeier said.
"It drives me crazy to hear all this talk about how we need to bring people together and find the common ground when, really, there's all kinds of stonewalling going on. We're to the point where people need to start drawing lines in the sand and saying, 'Wait a minute, this has gone on long enough. I'm not going any further.'
"I think that's what Bob Hooper's saying."
Wayne Bossert, who runs the Groundwater Management District No. 4 office in Colby, said he's not afraid of the debate as long as it includes a thorough understanding of the consequences.
"We can have sustainable use out here -- we can have it tomorrow -- but the public needs to know it's going to be ugly. You're talking about wiping out entire communities."
Bossert oversees irrigation practices in all or parts of 10 counties in northwest Kansas, including two counties -- Thomas and Sheridan -- on the troubled western edge of the Solomon River basin.
Sharon Steele comes from a long line of Colby-area irrigators. A member of the Kansas Water Authority, she's familiar with Hooper's arguments.
"Mr. Hooper might represent the majority on the basin advisory committee, but he does not represent the majority of the people in the Solomon Basin," Steele said.
"What's that farmer with the $200,000 loan supposed to do when his (nonirrigated) land is worth half as much as it was irrigated and with commodity prices being the way they are?" she asked. "How's anybody supposed to pay for anything when there's no economy?"
Larry McCants, president of First National Bank in Goodland, figures two-thirds of the region's income is tied to irrigation.
"I'd say just about all the economic growth that's occurred over the last 40 years is due to irrigation," McCants said. "It's the lifeblood of northwest Kansas."
Nobody cares more about careful use of water than irrigators, McCants said.
But Hooper says his patience with bankers and irrigators and their rationalizations is exhausted.
"Somebody with a vested interest in exploiting anything is going to find ways to defend and justify that exploitation," Hooper said.
"Well, I've been hearing this 'Let us handle it and it'll be all right' for 20 years now and I can't think of anything they've done that qualifies as unremunerated stewardship."
The mine and the shaft
Hooper's bottom line is simple. He wants to save the water. Because once it's gone, it's gone forever.
But Duffy, of the water office, says there's a bigger question. What's wrong, he asked, with using a natural resource responsibly?
"It's sort of like having a gold mine," he said. "There's only so much gold in the mine. So do you leave the gold in the mine? Do you take it out all at once? Or do you take it out responsibly in ways that benefit the miner and economy that's built up around the mine?"
Duffy said the water office is encouraging a middle way.
"We're taking the prudent approach," he said. "We're letting an economy develop that can sustain itself without such a heavy reliance on irrigation as opposed to ceasing irrigation altogether."
That assumes the region's irrigation-based economy eventually would be replaced by one that demands less water. But Donald Worster, a distinguished Kansas University professor who has studied the history of the environment, said there's no guarantee.
"When you look at the history of water use in drier areas of the world, you'll find a boneyard of societies that have failed, collapsed or shown serious depopulation," Worster said.
"What you have here is a mining economy, something is taken out of the ground that, essentially, will not be replaced," he said. "And the trouble with a mining economy is that there's no clear idea of what the 'next resource' is going to be. You can't go off assuming something will take its place because history tells us it's just too complicated to figure out what, in the future, people are going to want and what price they'll be willing to pay. It's imponderable; there are too many variables for one to be self-confident."
Much of the history of the American West, he said, is rooted in attempts to sustain mining economies. That is neither good nor bad. It is a fact of history.
But it's also true, he said, that mining economies can only last as long as the mine.
"At times, I don't think people in agriculture want to face up to this."
Though he offered no solutions -- that's not a historian's role, he said -- Worster urged reliance on democratic principles.
"Everybody in the community should have an equal voice and a thorough understanding of the facts and complexities -- this shouldn't be left up to a few who are informed or those who control the agricultural process. It needs to be the whole community."