Archive for Sunday, October 15, 2006

Water crisis demands attention

October 15, 2006


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An estimated 15 million acre-feet of water per year are withdrawn for irrigation.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.

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.

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.


xenophonschild 11 years, 6 months ago


You said it best. It may be time for "farmers" in western Kansas who do not have access to regions of the acquifer that will support irrigation for generations to pack it in.

Of course, the first time a three or four-year rainy season comes, the plains will fill again with optimistic agriculturalists.

The_Twelve 11 years, 6 months ago

Simple solution. If it's a western KS problem (and I'm only being sarcastic here, not simplistic), just get all those conservative Republicants who live out there to pray HARDER!

roger_o_thornhill 11 years, 6 months ago

"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."--That's $2 per acre. What the hell is anyone going to do with $2 an acre?

This is another example of the unsustainable nature of the "American Lifestyle". How much is spent of corn subsidies? What the hell is alfalfa used for?

Kansas, especially west of Topeka should not be farmed. It is time to let the tallgrasses return. Easy for me to say since I'm not trying to farm, but that doesn't matter. People who work at a manufacturing facility that closes are expected to retrain and so should those who are attempting to farm on land that isn't meant for such activities. Unfortunately, people like to build cities on land that is more suitable for such practices. They control rivers so that the floods can't replentish the soil. They spray who knows what all over their crops so that they can make an extra couple thousand. I know to a family farm that can mean the world, but to the likes of ADM or Cargill or their ilk, it just means more $$$ for less work.

And then you have jerks like those down in Texas who want to build a pipeline to take Ogallala water to Dallas for the city folks to do with what city folks do with water.

As for the state legislature: If you think the "rapture" is coming, please resign and prepare for it. Let those of us who think life will go on or who will be "left behind" make the terrestrial decisions. If you are greedy or power hungry, step down. Look around and see the 2.6million other people who share your state, the 290million who share your country, and the 6+billion who share your world. Just because you don't know them or like them or agree with them doesn't mean you can ignore them.

As for the people of Kansas: There are bigger fish to fry than those fried in Topeka whenever the legislature feels like being in session. Make your government stop wasting everyone's time on trivial issues. And keep in mind, almost every issue is trivial compared with extinction. Don't vote for incumbents. Even if you like them, new ideas are the only thing that is going to help us. New ideas only come from new people.

Jamesaust 11 years, 6 months ago

Its a rare problem that isn't made worse by government's involvement in it. A little political leadership would quickly educated the bored masses of the cost of existing policies to everyone.

For example, check out this article from just today:

Bottom Line: farmers are collecting government-subsidized insurance and government disaster payments for the very same disasters. Cost to the taxpayer in the last 6 years -- $24 billion. Worst offender? Kansas. One Western Kansas farmer profiled has collected $3.62 in insurance for every $1 in premiums paid (not including disaster payments). Its hardly "insurance" if the odds are better than in Vegas.

Choice quote from Western Kansas: "There's just no water. We probably should never have developed those [fields] when we did 30 years ago because the water table was declining." So what's his next step? He adds another 1,000 acres INTO production and now "prays" for another federal disaster bill to cover his [gambling] losses.

So what's the politican's answer? Pat Roberts wants another disaster bill to cover the current drought. It was Roberts who set up this scheme back in 2000, arguing that subsidized insurance would create "less need" for disaster relief. Thanks Pat! I think I'll buy some land near Hoxie and wallow in the government-created mud like a good piggie.

Liberty 11 years, 6 months ago

I would suggest making some surface lakes in Western Kansas. The bodies of water would collect and concentrate rainfall to replenish underground water supplies more quickly. The farmers may have to give the ground a rest 1 year out of every 7 to allow things to 'keep up' and not deplete. Farmers have over-farmed the land. Trying to get too much out of it without allowing it to replenish. Small farms would be better for the land and water supplies than large corporate farms of today.

ASBESTOS 11 years, 6 months ago

Don't for get about the ethanol production. It take water for the corn or biomass of choice, then water for the production in heat exchangers, fermenters, etc, and then there is water in the alchol.

Lot O' water being used and diverted form "food" production.

The Farming industry in Kansas is no longer the "family farms" and is now corporate. In this article the gentleman was referring to his "6000 acers"! That is just short of 10 square miles!

We need to stop subsidising AND then paying damage payments too.

Talk about double dipping.

bert 11 years, 6 months ago

when i was much younger, i drove with my father to larned. as we pulled in to town, i saw big bundles of pipes in a field. lotta this stuff. i said: 'dad, are those weapons of mass destruction' ? and he said, "no, those are irrigation pipes". this was 1953. we have grown irrigated crops between salina and denver for half a century. i've seen irrigation systems spraying groundwater into the air when it's 110 degrees and less than 15% hits the ground. a lot of what lands is the unfiltered minerals. salt. now many fields there have a crust of this stuff. we must not start trying to produce corn for ethanol out there. ethanol is a false promise. it takes more to produce it than it takes to pump and refine gas. and there is not enough water to support that endeavor. those pipes represent mass destruction of our land.

amhydroguy 11 years, 6 months ago

Hydroponics is a solution that is becoming more popular in these kinds of situations. Issues like this are happening all over the world, not just in Kansas. Hydroponics will use only 1/10 the water on 1/3 of the space. The farmer's insurance monies could be better used for more future Hydroponic applications instead of feeding the pockets of displaced growers.

Jaylee 9 years, 11 months ago

hydropronics also change the flavour and integrity of the plant. kansas(and america) kinda puts itself in akward situations like this sometimes by not caring in general about the things they should when it actually matters. aside from the mentioned texans trying to get their hands on the aquifer, there was an article just last year about an energy plant in oklahoma, i believe, trying to get rights to the majority of the water. and western kansans were discussing actually doing it.

Jaylee 9 years, 11 months ago

it was colorado, not oklahoma. and it was that dumb coal plant idea in western kansas. one more reason to hate that plan... drain kansas water AND pollute kansas air. we would have been the ones recieving all the smog from the plant too. us and everyone else to the east. blehwell yeah the plant would have been in western kansas and we'd be divvying the energy mostly out of kansas, mostly to colorado.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.