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Archive for Monday, March 29, 2010

State’s groundwater levels continue to rise

March 29, 2010

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— Evidence of one of the wetter periods in the past decade lingers on Todd Zimmerman's Rice County farm.

Last year, he was plagued by mud holes washing out seed and fields too wet to cut. Now, just a few weeks before he typically begins spring planting, Zimmerman admits he's probably about two months behind.

"I'd say we have about a third of our corn ground ready to plant," he said Friday morning - a day before more rain was in the forecast. "We're probably going to be pushing it."

In fact, there was enough rain in 2009 that Zimmerman says a recent measurement of his irrigation wells showed a 1.5-foot increase.

"Many of our water levels are higher than pre-irrigation," he said. "We have well log records from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and it's higher than it was back then."

Across much of south-central Kansas, groundwater levels have risen, thanks to the rainfall and less pumping by irrigators. The Big Bend Groundwater Management District, which makes up part of western Reno County and runs to Edwards/Pawnee/Kiowa county lines and includes Zimmerman's Rice County farm, saw a .60 of a foot increase in the water table, said Brownie Wilson, a water scientist with the Kansas Geological Survey, the agency that completes a measurement of about 1,400 of the state's water wells each January.

Some pockets, including those in the eastern part of the district, rose more than 3 feet, he said.

In all, levels have increased more than 4 feet since 2007. GMD 5 Manager Sharon Falk said some areas have seen an increase of nearly 15 feet since the 1980s.

She said one woman called saying her soil's sodium levels had spiked since the groundwater table climbed. The water table that once was 15 feet below the surface is now just 2 or 3 feet from it, affecting the soil. In this particular area, the groundwater has a higher, naturally occurring salinity.

Falk also said both Quivira National Wildlife Refuge near Stafford and Cheyenne Bottoms just north of Great Bend are not having the water declines that once occurred from over pumping along the creeks that feed both wildlife havens.

Only a few areas in the western part of the district saw drops, she said, including an area around Macksville in Stafford County. But even those spots didn't see the declines of the past as farmers cut back on pumping water to crops, thanks to the plentiful rainfall.

Zimmerman said he probably irrigated 25 to 50 percent less than he normally does on a thirstier year.

Still, he said, while the rainfall helped him have "some of the best yields in quite a while," washed out areas caused a few fields to yield lower.

Meanwhile, Wilson said a few other districts also saw groundwater levels rise, including an average increase of .18 of a foot in GMD 4 in northwest Kansas, compared to a decline of more than 1 foot in 2007 and 2008 combined. The Equus Beds district had an average augment of .03 of a foot. That district makes up Harvey, McPherson, Sedgwick and Reno counties. The water table has risen nearly 4 feet since 2007.

Much of the Ogallala Aquifer, the underground reservoir that underlies western Kansas, is still declining, Wilson said.

In southwest Kansas, the table dropped an average 1.50 feet in 2009 and more than 9 feet in the past five years. The biggest decline during this time period was during 2008, with a 2.85-foot drop.

GMD 3 Executive Director Mark Rude, whose district makes up much of southwest Kansas, said timely rains helped keep levels from dropping even lower.

But even during wetter years, semiarid southwest Kansas, where recharge is minute and the area over-appropriated with water rights, declines continue, just as they typically have since irrigation systems began dotting the plains shortly after World War II.

Traditionally heavy irrigation areas, such as a pocket around the Haskell and Finney county line, as well as on the eastern side of Stevens County, had declines of more than 5 feet.

GMD No. 1 also declined by .40 of a foot, or roughly 1.71 feet in the past three years.

A report released by the U.S. Geological Survey last year showed Kansas has had some areas of the Ogallala decline by more than 150 feet since predevelopment. Typical declines in southwest and west-central Kansas are 50 to 150 feet.

Efforts are under way to mitigate the problem, including a water-rights retirement program aimed at recharging the Ogallala and the Arkansas River. Called the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, the project focuses on the 1.57 million-acre river corridor from the Colorado state line to Rice County.

Its success, however, has been limited because farmers must transform the land into grass. They aren't allowed to dryland farm the acreage.

While the Kansas Water Office works to better that program, Rude said he is hoping for funding through the Agriculture Water Enhance Program, a federal program implemented through the 2008 farm bill that allows farmers to retire water rights but still farm the land.

According to the Natural Resource Conservation Service Web site, Kansas didn't receive any of the $58 million in funding during fiscal 2009.

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