Water crisis demands attention

Beneath the soil of landlocked Kansas lies a vast, life-sustaining source of water called the High Plains aquifer.

Formed millions of years ago, the aquifer – also referred to as the Ogallala – underlies an area of 174,000 square miles in parts of eight states, including most of western Kansas.

Since the 1940s, farmers have ferociously pumped the aquifer to produce food for a hungry nation and world.

An estimated 15 million acre-feet of water per year are withdrawn for irrigation. One acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons, or the amount it would take to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.

Now, in some areas of western Kansas, the aquifer has been sucked dry or is close to it, and farmers are shutting down wells.

The effect of draining the source of water that grows a major portion of the nation’s crops has seismic repercussions.

“It’s a big, complex problem,” said Susan Stover, manager of the High Plains unit at the Kansas Water Office.

“There will need to be a lot of changes. We can’t have near the amount of irrigated corn and alfalfa that we have. We don’t have the water.

Farmer Bill Spillman, viewed through the front window of a grain hauler driven by his employee Richard Rachel, heads into the fields to cut corn last Friday in Hoxie. Spillman uses both irrigation and dry-land farming methods.

“The bottom line is, if everything was sustainable, we wouldn’t be tinkering with it,” she said.

Competing forces

It’s a simple equation. Agriculture is drawing more water from the aquifer than percolates back down through rainfall and runoff. The water table drops lower, making it impossible or financially impractical to pump water from below.

The issue is made even more difficult because of the current seven-year drought and because some areas of the aquifer are nearly depleted while others have enough water for generations of irrigation.

Bob Hooper, a retired teacher from Bogue who has been involved in state water issues for decades, said the agricultural depletion of the aquifer “is like a drunk running a liquor store, and I don’t mean that unkindly.

“It’s an economic addiction, and like all addictions, it will be painful to quit, and there will be a high price to pay for having had it,” Hooper said.

But Wayne Bossert, manager of the Northwest Kansas Groundwater District No. 4, in Colby, has a counter view.

“If you are going to make money, you are going to use water,” Bossert said. “If you want to make less money, use less water. It’s an economic resource out here; it’s about choices.”

Bossert said policymakers wanting to reduce use of the aquifer needed to approach the problem with eyes wide open.

“We are going to have economic and social impacts. Are you certain this is the way you want to go?” he said.

Bossert noted that irrigation is the foundation of industries ranging from crops, fertilizer and seeds to equipment, land and taxes.

“If all that irrigation is no longer there … it brings the whole system down,” he said. “That’s the other side of the argument. Nobody is arguing that we have to slow the decline. We are bickering about how to approach it.”

But the decline of the aquifer hasn’t stopped.

This summer, numerous low-streamflow records in western Kansas were broken, caused by low groundwater levels and lack of rain, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The records that were broken were set in the 1930s and 1950s during the worst droughts on record in Kansas.

Programs in place

The state is tackling the issue on several fronts.

A five-year pilot project to purchase water rights and retire them in south-central and western Kansas has been launched on paper, but as of yet, no rights have been purchased as officials put in place details of the program.

Richard Rachel, of Hoxie, drives a grain truck Friday alongside Hoxie farmer Bill Spillman. Spillman uses both irrigation and dry-land farming methods.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has appropriated $2.1 million in grants to irrigators to convert to dry-land farming. Corn is an especially thirsty and popular crop in Kansas. Nearly 1 million acres of irrigated corn in Kansas drink up nearly 1 million acre-feet of water per year, according to state statistics.

And the state Water Office has proposed to the Legislature spending $5 million to retire water rights along the Arkansas River corridor from the Kansas-Colorado state line to north of Great Bend.

Serious talks needed

Some think too little is going on to slow the water mining.

Terry Woodbury, a consultant for small towns, said lawmakers needed to dig into the issue.

“The Legislature isn’t even visiting about it. They got time to talk about sex education and putting creationism in the science room, but we aren’t talking about water,” Woodbury said.

And Hooper said buying water rights is a bad use of taxpayer dollars that gives farmers the incorrect message that they own the water.

“The state has the responsibility to regulate the water in the public’s interest. The water has been overappropriated, and we need to regulate water use downward to a sustainable use,” he said.

The last time a leading Kansas official tried to stir discussion of the aquifer, he was shouted down.

In 2001, then-Gov. Bill Graves caused a firestorm when, during his State of the State address, he called for zero depletion of the state’s aquifers by 2020. He didn’t propose any legislation but said lawmakers should get busy on the task.

“He quickly came to realize that that was not needed to be said,” Bossert said.

Graves got an earful from western Kansas officials who said the governor was saying water was more important than the people it sustained.

“He backpedaled in the coming weeks, softened it a bit,” Bossert said.

Hooper said Graves was left out on the ledge because most people in Kansas “don’t give a damn” about the aquifer issue, and others are hoping for a market solution where dwindling natural gas supplies in the region or lowering of the water table will make it too costly to pump the aquifer.

“It’s nice to say it will take care of itself, but that will only stall off needed action now.

“It’s a foolhardy thing to deplete the aquifer, and we ought to stop doing it,” Hooper said.