Archive for Sunday, November 2, 2003

Dwindling resource tests Kansans

Ogallala Aquifer’s decline squeezes farms, communities

November 2, 2003


— While Clyde and Glenda Schinnerer were taking a shower or doing laundry, the water at times would just stop flowing at their Scott County farm in western Kansas.

Eventually, water would seep back into their well from the Ogallala Aquifer and the water pump would start again -- for a while.

For months, the Schinnerers made do with a well drying up because they had lived on their farm since they were married in 1955. By 1979, they knew it would be far too expensive to try to get a new water supply. Even if they could afford it, they would not know how long it might last.

Reluctantly, they moved into town, to Scott City.

"We liked it on the farm, always loved to be on the farm," he said. "The water was the main thing -- about the only thing, really."

Future is here

The Schinnerers -- like others in the Scott City area -- experienced what some experts say is the shape of things to come.

When it comes to water, Kansas has two personalities. In most of the state, where farming is king and the Ogallala Aquifer is the most precious resource, water troubles are framed by the question of quantity.

In the state's suburban and urban northeastern corner, the question is quality first and quantity second. In Johnson County, perhaps the state's most prosperous corner, it takes a lot of water, and money, to keep the babies clean, the lawns green and the SUVs gleam.

Rex Buchanan has thought a lot about the future of water across the state.

"If you want to know the future, talk to the people in Scott County," said Buchanan, a Lawrence resident and associate director of the Kansas Geological Survey at Kansas University. "They are experiencing the future already,"

During the past 20 years, 5 percent of the aquifer beneath much of western Kansas has fallen to levels of less than 30 feet of saturated thickness -- not enough water for large-scale irrigation, he said.

An additional 4 percent will fall into that category within the next 25 years at current usage rates, Buchanan said. About 40 percent of the aquifer will not last for more than 100 years at current usage.

Exactly how long all that takes depends on factors in 10 or 20 years that nobody can predict: the price of corn, the climate, natural gas costs.

acre-foot: Volume of water necessary to cover one acre to a depth of one foot; equal to 43,560 cubic feet or 325,851 gallons.alluvium: Unconsolidated clay, silt, sand, or gravel deposited during recent geologic time by running water in bed of stream or on its floodplain.baseflow: Streamflow derived mainly from groundwater seepage into the stream.base level: Lowest point in water table in given area; water in area flows toward this destination by gravity and hydrostatic pressure.beneficial use: Use of water that provides a benefit; water rights not put to beneficial use are subject to forfeiture.discharge: Movement of groundwater from subsurface to land surface, usually from spring or to marsh, river, or stream.groundwater: Underground water generally found in the pore space of rocks or sediments that can be collected with wells, tunnels, or drainage galleries, or that flows naturally to the surface.intermittent flow: Surface water flowing only during periods of seasonal runoff.Kansas Water Appropriation Act: 1945 law establishing general principle that all water within state is dedicated to use of residents subject to state control and regulations.losing stream: Stream that contributes water to saturated zone, recharging groundwater.recharge: Replenishment of groundwater in an aquifer; can be either natural, through movement of precipitation into aquifer, or pumping water into an aquifer.saturated zone: Portion of soil or aquifer in which all pore space is filled with water.sustainable yield: Volume of groundwater that can be extracted annually from a groundwater basin without causing adverse effects.unsaturated zone: Area of soil or rock just above the water table.upconing: Upward movement of groundwater from deeper to shallower position in aquifer, usually induced by pumping well or discharge to surface.vested right: Right to continue the use of water having actually been used for a beneficial use on or before June 28, 1945, when Kansas Water Appropriation Act became effective.watershed: Area drained by a single stream or river. The Arkansas River watershed, for example, includes that area from which water eventually flows into the Arkansas River.Source: Kansas Geological Survey

"There is this sense -- particularly in eastern Kansas -- that one day everybody is going to wake up and there isn't going to be any water out there," Buchanan said.

What really happens is a gradual cutback of large-scale irrigation, rather than an overnight change, he said.

Irrigation changes

People change their irrigation practices in response to water levels. They scale down and adopt more conservation measures. They use irrigation to supplement rain, rather than irrigating all the time. They also change planting practices.

For instance, Schinnerer now leases out his land. Once, it grew thirsty corn under irrigation; now it's crops are more drought-tolerant wheat and grain sorghum -- all planted on dryland acres.

The shift will happen at different rates depending on location and use. In some places, such as Wichita County, the aquifer already is considered depleted. But in other parts of the state, such as southwest Kansas, there's enough water in the aquifer to last decades.

At the front lines of the declining groundwater battle is Western Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 1, which includes parts of Scott, Lane, Wichita, Greeley and Wallace counties -- on land above some of the most depleted parts of the aquifer.

Farmers started flood irrigating the area in the early 1900s -- long before technological advances in the 1950s and 1960s led to dramatic increases in large-scale pumping.

It's here the effects of a declining aquifer are most keenly felt and where some see the aquifer's future.

As manager of the district, Keith Lebbin works to stop the aquifer's decline without hurting the local economy. He said the aquifer's average saturated thickness in the district is 46 feet.

"We have had areas completely dewatered that have gone back to dryland, not a massive amount of acres, but some," he said. "We are relatively shallow in thickness as far as the aquifer is concerned."

Scramble to buy

Of 650,000 acres authorized to irrigate in the management district, fewer than 300,000 acres are irrigated because so little water remains, Lebbin said.

"It has been going on like a cancer that spreads over time," he said.

Communities in west-central Kansas are scrambling to buy additional water rights as they deal with problems of water quantity and -- increasingly -- of water quality. Nitrate levels are high.

"As the saturated thickness gets less, what is there is of poor quality," Lebbin said. "Whatever has been done on the surface is showing up in the groundwater -- leaking underground tanks, chemicals used on farmland."

The district has tried to do its job by such practices as requiring all irrigation wells to be metered so nobody uses more than their share of water.

One task that would help slow the decline would be a federal water buyout program that pays people not to irrigate, Lebbins said.

The Farm Service Agency has a small program to do that, but the idea hasn't been widely accepted because of the low payments.

"There is a whole range of things you can do, but they have to be legal and they have to take into account the economic impact and political realities," Buchanan said. "People have built a livelihood around irrigation -- you can't say we are going to stop irrigation overnight."

Looking back, Schinnerer said the area would not be in the tough position it is now with groundwater declines if farmers had the kind of leadership and control then that is now in place with Groundwater Management District No. 1.

"We wouldn't have wasted nearly as much water -- we overpumped our wells," he said.

Louis DeKeyser walks a portion of the Amazon Ditch near Lakin.
DeKeyser oversees the operation of the 33-mile-long canal that
supplies water to 16,000 acres of fields in western Kansas. Without
the canal and irrigators, the area of the state would be settled
only by "rattlesnakes and pack rats," DeKeyser said.

Louis DeKeyser walks a portion of the Amazon Ditch near Lakin. DeKeyser oversees the operation of the 33-mile-long canal that supplies water to 16,000 acres of fields in western Kansas. Without the canal and irrigators, the area of the state would be settled only by "rattlesnakes and pack rats," DeKeyser said.

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