Water specialists are starting their annual measurement of irrigation wells in western Kansas at a time of heightened awareness about the limits of the state's groundwater resources.
A task force recently reported to Gov. Bill Graves that Kansas needs to change its "use-it-or-lose-it" mentality about groundwater.
The task force recommended a deadline of 2020 for zero depletion of groundwater, a term that means no more water can be taken from underground aquifers than naturally returns in the form of either rain or streamflows.
It's a concept that Graves said he supports, but he declined to endorse a specific deadline.
Zero depletion is certainly not the name of the game now in the High Plains aquifer.
The aquifer lies under eight states, including much of western and south-central Kansas, and is pumped heavily for irrigation.
The High Plains aquifer was formally known as the Ogallala but geologists have determined that the Ogallala and several other aquifers are really part of the High Plains aquifer.
In Kansas, the High Plains aquifer underlies about 33,500 square miles in 46 counties and is used to irrigate crops and support the cattle industry.
"It is the linchpin to most of the economic activity that goes on in western Kansas. It all comes back to water," said Rex Buchanan, associate director of the Kansas Geological Survey at Kansas University.
A team from the Geological Survey will start Wednesday checking water levels in the aquifer. They will measure about 1,400 wells, most of which are used for irrigation.
Buchanan said the measurements will be compared to previous years to find out whether the aquifer level is higher, lower or about the same in order to determine trends.
Geological Survey studies have shown that in several areas of western Kansas, the groundwater supplies will be depleted within the next 25 to 50 years, if current irrigation levels are maintained.
"That's the $64 question. How long will it last?" Buchanan said.
Bob Hooper of Bogue, chairman of the Solomon River Basin Advisory Committee in northwestern Kansas, said he has the answer not much longer.
"We're like drunks in charge of the liquor store," he said, referring to the depletion of the groundwater for crops and cattle. "We have a whole economy built up in exploiting groundwater for the short-term."
Hooper has battled with the Kansas Water Authority over water use. He tried to have the Water Authority establish a zero depletion-type policy for the Solomon River basin in the 2001 Kansas Water Plan. The authority rejected the idea.
Hooper said the governor's task force endorsement of zero depletion in the future gives him some hope, but not much because similar proposals were recommended during Gov. Joan Finney's administration.
A zero depletion policy in western Kansas would "change things pretty dramatically," Buchanan said.
In Kansas, irrigation increases significantly from eastern to western Kansas because of the lack of adequate rainfall.
More than 1 million acre feet of water are used for irrigation per year in just Finney, Gray, Haskell, Stevens and Meade counties, according to Kansas Water Authority records. An acre foot equals 325,851 gallons, the amount of water necessary to cover 1 acre of land with 1 foot of water.
Mike Matson, a spokesman for the Kansas Farm Bureau, which advocates for farmers and ranchers, said Graves' task force recommendation has helped put the issue of groundwater use on the "front burner."
"We're grateful that the discussion has begun," he said.
Buchanan said the measurements will provide the basic information needed to help that discussion along.
"Clearly, those folks who are making policy in the state need to know what's going on in the aquifer. They need to know how well conservation efforts are working in order to know how to manage the water," he said.