Stockton When Robin Bailey wanted to escape the Denver suburbs, she bought a 160-acre alfalfa farm in northwest Kansas and fell in love with a pair of creeks that raced through the property. Two ponds she added later were just another bonus.
But nine years later, the creeks are dry, the ponds puddle up a bit but are mostly empty, and a nearby section of the Solomon River doesn't run much at all.
And it's not because of drought, Bailey says.
"It's because of irrigators. Once they turn that spigot on down the road, that's the minute you see the water move from the pond."
Irrigation, the workhorse of modern agriculture that helped catapult the United States to become a major world food supplier, has become a source of contention for farmers, environmental groups and governments as they wrangle over the fate of available water.
Irrigation accounts for the largest demand on freshwater supplies in the United States and is second only to thermoelectric power in its use of U.S. fresh and saltwater supplies combined, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that while about 16 percent of all cropland is irrigated, largely in the western states, that acreage generates about $60 billion - or about half the value of U.S. crops.
Importance of irrigation
Some farm groups and others contend water is plentiful and irrigation is necessary to sustain crops and the livelihoods of the people and businesses that rely on a solid farm economy. They also point to low rainfall and conservation measures that trap water on fields as contributing to low streamflow and water shortages.
But environmental groups are among those who claim irrigation - particularly west of the Mississippi - has helped dry up streams, lower reservoirs and has threatened the land's longterm viability.
Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Mass., estimates that 10 percent of the food supply is produced by overpumping of groundwater and calls irrigation a "hidden subsidy" on the food supply.
"If you're pumping more water than is being recharged, you're in a deficit situation in regards to water," Postel says. "You're producing food today in a manner that's not sustainable, so you're using some of tomorrow's water to meet today's food demand."
Several states have taken steps to curtail irrigation. Colorado shut down about 400 wells last summer in a bid to slow irrigation demands. Other farm states like Kansas and Nebraska also have been developing new plans to stem overpumping.
One plan calls for Kansas to pay farmers to stop irrigating and then retire the water rights to wells that draw on underground sources like the massive Ogallala Aquifer, which has been showing signs of depletion in some sections for years.
But Gerry and Linda Franklin, who farm in Sherman County in western Kansas, irrigate one third of their land with water from the Ogallala. Without it, they'd be out of business.
"The last seven years have been extremely dry. It's been a tough seven years. One year even with irrigating, the crops burned with the hot wind," Gerry Franklin said. "Being able to irrigate is what's kept us in business."
Franklin pointed out that farmers like him and his wife try to conserve water as much as possible while also producing a crop. He has taken a variety of measures, including shorter growing seasons that require less irrigation and replacing spray irrigation systems with drip systems that are less wasteful.
"Everybody's concerned about the aquifer," he said. "It's our lifeblood, just like it's everybody else's. We try not to overuse."
'Very large' challenges
Mike Hayden, Kansas secretary of wildlife and parks, addressed a recent public meeting on water concerns for the central Kansas city of Salina, which issued its first water emergency last summer when the Smoky Hill River went dry.
Despite adequate rainfall around Kansas, Hayden said, "stream flows are not what they used to be, and they're not what they're projected to be."
"A lot of other factors are out there that are impacting streamflows, and principally those factors are irrigation," Hayden said.
Reservoirs around Kansas also have been at record low levels, Hayden said. But greatly restricting irrigation in an agriculture state like Kansas is a difficult proposition because it would affect other areas of the economy, from seed and fertilizer companies to banks that own much of the rural land.
The challenges are "very large" as Kansas tries to deal with the transition to less water available for irrigation, says David Pope, chief engineer for the Kansas Division of Water Resources.
"As much as our state relies on irrigation, as that decreases over time, that will affect the economic viability and social consequences of some areas," Pope said.
Steve Smith, director of waterclaim.org, defends irrigation as necessary, particularly in the central plains states where relying on rain and snow to water crops can be a gamble.
"When the pioneers came here, they called it the great American desert, and they did that for a reason," said Smith, who owns about 1,000 acres of cropland outside Imperial, Neb. "Without irrigation, agriculture becomes extremely risky."
If some farmers had to stop growing crops like corn, which requires more water, it wouldn't be "the end of the world," Smith said.
"But if you do that across too much of America, then you start to affect things. One state in the nation will survive, but if you start shutting down two or three states of irrigation, then you need to start changing your diet."
Can't import it
For Bailey, it's about more than diet.
In addition to watching area waterways dry up, she also has lost production on her 160-acre alfalfa farm; one 45-acre field used to produce 300 tons. Now she farms 110 acres but gets only about 110 tons of alfalfa.
She blames the losses on other farmers' overpumping.
"I think farming is the basis of our economy. It's what my grandfather did, it's what my grandmother did," says Bailey, who has become active in trying to get community and state leaders to restrain irrigation.
"You have to be able to feed a civilization. You can't, you know, just say, 'Oh well, we don't have any water, we'll import it from China.'"