Folks in western Kansas say Gov. Bill Graves can't be serious about halting depletion of the region's underground water supply by 2020.
That would mean no more irrigation. And without irrigation, they can't grow the corn and sorghum that feed their cattle. And without cattle, their economy is sunk.
"It would be devastating," said Lon Frahm, president of Groundwater Management District No. 4 in Colby.
"You hear people say we need to go to 'zero depletion' to save the aquifer for future generations. And my response to that is, 'What future generation? Without irrigation, who's going to be here?'
"There won't be anybody here because there won't be enough of an economy to keep them here," Frahm said.
But in Graves' State of the State address last week, the governor called for stopping depletion of the state aquifers by 2020. He didn't propose any legislation to make that happen. But, he said, he wants lawmakers to start considering and discussing the idea.
"We need to get on with the business of having a very serious discussion about accomplishing that by 2020," Graves said.
He wants the Kansas Geological Survey at Kansas University to issue a report on the state's options for reaching zero depletion -- the point where withdrawals from an aquifer equal its recharge -- over the next 19 years.
The report, he said, would serve as a starting point for what's sure to be a long, heated debate about state water policies.
Already, western Kansas legislators are saying Graves is out of line.
"I'm not convinced the governor has all the information he should have on this issue," said Sen. Steve Morris, R-Hugoton.
"I'm afraid he's painting all of western Kansas with the same paintbrush," said Rep. Carl Holmes, R-Liberal.
"There are some areas of the state where there's enough water for another 40, 50 years of irrigation," Holmes said. "And there are parts where wells have already been shut down.
"To say that they all have to be at zero depletion by 2020 just isn't realistic."
A better idea, Holmes said, would be for the state to offer financial incentives for farmers to adopt more efficient irrigation practices.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, say the governor's approach is short on substance, long on window dressing.
"This is long overdue," said Bob Hooper, a retired teacher and environmental activist from Graham County.
"I'm happy the governor said what he said, but in many ways I'm afraid this'll turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Whatever we win will be too little, too late."
And what sense does it make, Hooper asked, for the state to condone another 19 years of irrigation?
If Graves wants to save the aquifer, he ought to start now with zero depletion, Hooper said.
Graves' proclamation took state water officials by surprise.
"We didn't know it was coming," said Clark Duffy, assistant director at the Kansas Water Office.
"Having the Geological Survey come with the recommendations is, uh, a different approach," said Bob Buddemeier, a hydrologist and senior scientist at the Kansas Geological Survey.
"We do research, collect data," he said. "We don't get into policy issues, but I'm sure if that's what the governor wants, we can come up with something worthwhile -- the data is already there. And I'm sure we'll be talking to the Water Office."
Buddemeier is co-editor of the Geological Survey's recently published "An Atlas of the Kansas High Plains Aquifer," a 55-page report that documents declines in the state's groundwater supplies.
From a hydrologist's viewpoint, he said, Graves' proclamation "makes very good sense, but from political and economic points of view, well, I'm sure there will be other opinions."
Water bureaucrats were looking at other ways to slow aquifer depletion.
The Kansas Water Authority is scheduled to begin public discussion Wednesday of "double pooling," a new concept for defining when an aquifer's water levels warrant protection.
Life vs. economy
"Think of the aquifer as two pools of water," said Jamie Clover Adams, the state's agriculture secretary.
One, she said, represents the amount of water needed to sustain human life; the other to sustain the economy.
Under "double pooling," state water officials could use Kansas Geological Survey data to protect the first pool and curb withdrawals from the second.
This, Adams said, would give communities much-needed time to plot their futures.
"All of us are going to have to come up with way for these communities to make the transition to economies that are not dependent on irrigation," she said. "And what better time to start that discussion than now?"
As with Graves' call for zero-depletion there will be no legislation introduced with respect to double pooling. It also is a policy idea in the discussion stage not expected to take center stage in legislative debates this year.
-- Staff writer Dave Ranney can be reached at 832-7222.