Colby A clean, clear and cold natural resource that helped the economy bloom in semi-arid western Kansas has snared the interest of Gov. Sam Brownback.
Water from hundreds of feet under western Kansas in the massive Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches from South Dakota to Texas, is the basis for many enterprises in the agriculturally intense High Plains.
Irrigation pumps life onto the land that provides feed for huge cattle and dairy operations and beef-processing plants that have developed since the 1950s.
But that water, an essential ingredient, has been diminishing for years, and state officials are concerned.
The Governor's Economic Summit: Future of the Ogallala Aquifer, on July 21 at Colby Community College, will explore ways to "conserve and extend the life of the Ogallala," while also growing the western Kansas economy, according to a press release from the governor's office. The deadline to register for the summit is Friday.
Although Salina doesn't sit over the Ogallala, water and management are the keys to the future, said Martha Tasker, Salina's director of utilities. She plans to be at the governor's conference.
Ray Luhman, assistant manager of Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 4, based in Colby, said the water declines are more extreme in some areas than others.
Governed by a board of water users, the groundwater district, which covers all or parts of 10 counties in northwest Kansas, is the local control arm of water management and regulation for that part of the state.
There are five such water districts, and all but No. 2 near Wichita are in western Kansas. Those districts are charged with developing programs and policies in accordance with state law.
"This water's a big deal," said Mitchell Baalman, a Hoxie area farmer. He has served on the GMD 4 board since 1997.
"I know there's a problem out here. I'm right in the heart of it," he said.
Through the decades, western Kansas farmers developed irrigation to raise crops, eventually pumping more water than what the Ogallala could sustain.
The same is true in Garden City-based GMD 3, which includes all or parts of 12 counties in southwest Kansas.
"There's a big economic stake," Luhman said. "We've been basically looking at programs that can extend the life of the aquifer, which is vastly different than making it sustainable."
Mark Rude expects the governor to solicit ideas to deal with the lifeblood of that economy. The executive director of GMD 3 in Garden City, Rude is a past southwest Kansas water commissioner for the Kansas Division of Water Resources.
But there are many questions.
"How can we improve the environment of water use and eliminate any impediments to conservation?" he said. "What about the aspect of law that requires that if you don't use your right to access water, you may lose it? Out here, it should be that if you conserve it and not use it, that should be a good thing."
In Kansas, there are a number of factors that allow farmers not to use their water right, Rude said, such as placing your land in the federal Conservation Reserve Program for 10 years.
"The notion of good stewardship includes that we need the water today, tomorrow and in the future," Rude said. "The pressure on groundwater management today is to encourage the highest value possible for today's use, with an eye to the future."
In other words, there is a difference between raising corn that yields a whopping 300 bushels to the acre when the price is $2 a bushel, Rude said, versus when the market is at $7 a bushel.
"It should be used when the most value per bucket is there," he said. "Conversely, if there isn't much value, we shouldn't be using it. We certainly shouldn't require its use."
Rude anticipates that a key outcome of the governor's summit will be to "fundamentally do a better job of managing the resource long-term while facilitating the important economy that results from that water use. I think there's an intersect of those two circles."
Meanwhile, Baalman's wells in Sheridan County are "definitely dropping off," pumping 400 to 450 gallons a minute. Those same wells were producing 500 to 550 gallons a minute a decade ago, he said.
Farmers in that county voluntarily are trying to form an intensive groundwater use-control area, and agreeing to pump less water.
"I'm already pumping 14 to 15 inches (down from 18 to 20 in 2001). We had to bring our yield goals down," Baalman said. "We're not trying to hit a home run. We're trying to make some money."
He figures farmers could remain profitable by pumping only 11 inches of water and adjusting the number of corn seeds planted per acre.
"I think we can maintain our money levels on less water. We've just gotta change our farming practices," Baalman said. "If we could get a few timely rains, it would help a lot."
Rude speculates that Gov. Brownback, a former Kansas Secretary of Agriculture, isn't out to restrict pumping, "because it kills the economy. What he wants to do is look for opportunities to enhance the economy. That's my expectation."
Adding to the issue, the Ogallala isn't hydrologically confined to counties, states or even regions, and it's connected to a natural system that's tweaked by humans -- ditches, streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs.
Salina is downstream of western Kansas, and thus connected.
There are several aquifers, Tasker said, and the saturated thickness of those underground pools is shrinking.
"As that aquifer dries, it has an effect on everybody from that point on," Tasker said. "You have to believe, as they have less water, they have to have an effect on areas downstream."
Salina, for example, gets about half of its municipal water supply from the Smoky Hill River, which originates in Colorado. The river runs downhill through northwest Kansas, dumping first into Cedar Bluff Reservoir near WaKeeney and then Kanopolis, its last storage stop before meandering to Salina.