Wichita — At age 12, Bill Mai was old enough to help move irrigation pipe at the family farm near Sharon Springs. That was back in 1948, when his father took out the first water right in southeast Wallace County.
They drilled down nearly 105 feet to tap into the Ogallala Aquifer, the bottom of which reached 220 feet below the Kansas prairie.
Now 65, Mai owns that old water right. But the water table has dropped to 175 feet at the family homestead.
Last year alone, water levels fell another 2 feet to 3 feet even though Mai stopped irrigating two years ago and went to dryland crops and no-till farming.
His neighbors still irrigate their fields.
"We shut down our wells because of the fact we know we can't keep pumping and have water left over for drinking, eventually," he said. "We have done this in my lifetime."
In arid western Kansas, the fertile prairie has been transformed into an oasis of sorts since the introduction of irrigation technologies after World War II. By the 1970s, most of the water had been appropriated and an agribusiness industry based on irrigation became entrenched.
Scores of feedlots and meatpacking plants moved in, leading to an unprecedented period of population growth and economic expansion.
From the air, green crop circles formed by spewing center irrigation pivots are said to outline the boundaries of the Ogallala Aquifer almost as precisely as any geologist.
"Water is the central fact of life in western Kansas," said Dave Kromm, a Kansas State University researcher. "It permeates everything within the society because it is the scarce commodity. There is an abundance of space, an abundance of land, an abundance of fertility. But there is a scarcity of water."
Mai is not alone in his alarm about dwindling water supplies.
Irrigation drying up
Nowhere is that change more dramatic than in Wichita County. Twenty years ago, about 100,000 acres were under irrigation in the county. Today, the number of irrigated acres in the county has dropped to 40,000.
"It is that significant," Kromm said. "... That is the poster child of groundwater decline in western Kansas."
The Kansas Geological Survey, as part of its High Plains Aquifer Atlas, has put together a map showing depletion of the aquifer in different areas.
The data indicate parts of the Ogallala aquifer will be used up within 25 years and vast tracts of land will have no usable groundwater in the next 50 years to 100 years. Some areas, such as rivers and sandy parts where there is limited recharge, will last longer.
"If things continue, over the next 100 years irrigated agriculture in southwest Kansas will no longer be in existence," said Joe Aistrup, director of the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University.
Farmers will return to dryland farming practices. Some cropland will revert to grasslands for cattle.
"What I would like to do is avoid that future," Aistrup said.
More efficient irrigation technologies such as subsurface drip irrigation and low-pressure irrigation pivots that conserve water are available. Better drought-tolerant crop varieties are being developed. And high energy prices to pump water from ever deeper wells is driving farmers to conserve more water and rethink irrigation practices.
Mai said it was costing him so much to irrigate his corn that he actually made more money off his lower yielding dryland corn acres. Two years ago he put his water rights into the state water conservation reserve program and went entirely to dryland corn and wheat.
Under the reserve program, farmers promise to not use the water in return for their water rights being preserved, Mai said. Otherwise, Kansas law terminates a farmer's water right after three years of nonuse.
"What is next is that there is going to be a greater interest in water conservation in order to make farm practices economically viable," Kromm said. "The cost of applying water at the rate we have now is untenable under today's energy prices and they are not going to get better, not better enough."
Even if there is not enough water to grow additional crops, it should not dismantle the region's feedlots and meat packing industry because grain can be shipped in, he said.
"People adjust well. They adjust to change remarkably well," Kromm said. "We have to remember 70 years ago the Dust Bowl was just getting started out there and there was a period of depopulation in the area."
Today, western Kansas is more prosperous than ever.
Kromm predicts that the search for more efficient irrigation will accelerate and overall water will decline in western Kansas.
"You not only extend the life of the aquifer so you can measure it in centuries instead of decades but you free water for other uses," he said.