Archive for Monday, December 22, 2003

Technology could extend life of aquifer

December 22, 2003

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— Water-saving methods developed by Kansas State University scientists might extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer as well as save money for farmers.

A weather-monitoring system developed by the university is helping John Roenbaugh, who farms near Lewis, know just how much water his crop fields need during the summer.

"In general, in south-central Kansas, a person could save 3 to maybe even 5 inches of water in a year on average, with proper scheduling," said Gary Clark, a professor in the department of biological and agriculture engineering. "In southwest Kansas, one of our colleagues out there has seen savings of 5 to 7 inches of water a year."

Roenbaugh's fields have relied on irrigation since his father drilled his first irrigation well in the late 1960s.

Roenbaugh uses a program called KanSched, which Clark helped invent, to schedule irrigation for his corn, soybeans and cotton and save water in the process.

"Water isn't a problem today, but open your eyes very wide and look around," he said. "Yes, it is going to be a problem."

The program helps calculate water use for individual crops and allows farmers to give their crops the water they need when they need it without overwatering.

KanSched is taught in the university's Mobile Irrigation Lab, which includes a classroom trailer equipped with computers and software, said lab director Bob Stratton.

Most of the classes are during winter months, he said. From spring to fall, Stratton drives the lab across Kansas, part of a free service that conducts performance evaluations on center-pivot sprinklers -- the most popular irrigation system used in western Kansas.

Mechanical problems and missing or wrong-sized nozzles can affect how much water is being dispersed on the field, he said.

"I don't like to use the term 'waste,'" Stratton said, "but water is being better utilized through this program."

That benefits the Ogallala Aquifer, the underground cache beneath western Kansas, he said.

"Obviously it's not filling back up," Stratton said. "This is set up to use the resource wisely."

Clark said pumping costs, especially for natural gas, could cost more than $5 an acre-inch of water. On a quarter-section of ground, a farmer saving 4 inches of water also would save $125,000.

In western Kansas, most water-use appropriations allow farmers to apply 24 acre inches of water a year. For the Ogallala Aquifer -- slowly being depleted since irrigation's advent more than 50 years ago -- it could mean adding on a few more irrigation years to this finite resource.

"Irrigation is a big business in the state," Clark said. "When more than 90 percent of your water is used for irrigation, when so much of the Kansas economy relies on irrigation, that makes saving water all the more important."

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