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Archive for Thursday, October 19, 2006

Dwindling water

Economic realities are keeping irrigation pumps running in western Kansas, but, sooner or later, farmers will be forced to deal with the overriding realities

October 19, 2006

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All indications are that Kansans can deal with declining water supplies in the western part of the state now or deal with them later, but there's no way of getting around the fact that the current level of water usage can't go on forever.

As noted in a story in Sunday's Journal-World, some parts of the massive Ogallala Aquifer already are close to dry after years of more water being pumped out of the underground resource than was percolating back into it from rainfall and runoff. Streamflows are at record low levels in many areas.

Some farmers have shut down irrigation wells, but others have not. They see it as an economic necessity to raise the irrigated corn crops on which they have grown increasingly dependent, and they are unwilling at this point to give that up.

"If you are going to make money, you are going to use water," said Wayne Bossert, manager of the Northwest Kansas Groundwater District No. 4 in Colby. "It's an economic resource out here; it's about choices."

With all due respect, Bossert appears to be in a state of denial about water in Kansas. It may be about choices now, but it's highly likely that within a relatively short time, farmers who irrigate from the aquifer will have no choice. It will have been made for them when their precious water resource has been depleted.

Dryland wheat is the traditional money crop in western Kansas, but in several recent years, drought-stricken wheat crops haven't even been worth harvesting. It's understandable that farmers would turn to irrigation and simply hope for the best.

The fate of the aquifer isn't just a local problem; it's a statewide issue. In the western part of the state, economies still are largely driven by agriculture and agriculture-related ventures. Those communities - and their contributions to the state economy - rise and fall along with the fortunes of agriculture.

Maybe a few wet years or divine intervention will change the aquifer's course, but all indications now are that to preserve enough water for residential uses, irrigation will have to be curtailed in many areas. Federal grants and a pilot project to purchase water rights are planned to encourage a return to dryland farming. That will help preserve the aquifer, but it won't erase the economic effects of reduced farm production.

Preserving what is left of the Ogallala Aquifer is vital to the future of western Kansas. State officials should give top priority to protecting that resource and supporting farmers and communities as they face the challenging changes associated with their dwindling water supply.

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