Editorial: Looming disaster

Amid all the trivia that vies for our attention is an issue that future generations will wonder why we ignored.

February 10, 2013


It’s easy to get caught up in the political issues that consume our media and our conversations: gun policy, fiscal control, school finance. Even trivial matters such as what caused the power failure at the Super Bowl and who should have known that such a “disaster” was possible to distract our attention.

Every once in awhile, if but for a fleeting instant, something such as reservoir sedimentation or depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer may capture a bit of our time and consciousness.

A generation in the future is almost certain to demand to know why we were paying more attention to football than to water.

The entire state remains in a drought condition, and residents in northeast Kansas can readily observe it with a drive to any nearby reservoir, checking the depletion of farm ponds along the way. In western Kansas, it may not be quite so obvious, but the plight may be even more serious.

What little surface water there is also is affected by the drought, but underground, the evidence points toward a looming disaster. A story Tuesday about the aquifer, prompted by data gleaned by the Kansas Geological Survey at Kansas University from about 1,400 wells, illustrated the severity of the problem.

Water is being consumed from the Ogallala at the rate of 2 to 4 feet per year — sometimes more. The water table dropped more than 3 feet in 2012. It recharges at about half an inch annually. It doesn’t take a genius to see the problem or the ultimate outcome of this equation.

“There’s no question about it, we’re running smack dab into the limitation of the aquifer itself today and the demand placed upon it by those pumping wells,” acknowledges the executive director of the groundwater management district that governs water resources in a large area above the Ogallala.

What’s the answer?

“So you either say we’re done and we have no more economy, which we’re not going to do, or you say let’s make every drop count. That’s the focus of the conversation. The only other option is the importation of water,” the executive says.

“Good to the last drop,” the old coffee slogan went. Let’s hope this isn’t the fate of the Ogallala, but it appears to be, given the attitudes of those responsible.

Some historians look back at the 1930s Dust Bowl and blame greedy farmers for plowing and destroying the land, but it seems likely those farmers would have acted differently if they had known the disaster their actions would cause. The farmers who now are pumping water out of the Ogallala can’t make the same excuse of ignorance. They know exactly what they’re doing and what the outcome’s going to be. But if they believe that, after the aquifer runs out, they will be able to import enough water to continue the same profligate use of a finite resource, they must be drinking something stronger than H2O.

The state deserves better. But in the meantime, let’s get back to Beyoncé or that debate about the mortgage interest deduction.


William Weissbeck 2 years ago

Blame corn. Blame cows fed corn. Blame bad agreements that allowed Colorado to dam the water to support its non-farm population.

gccs14r 2 years ago

The corn and the cows didn't do anything on their own. Blame shortsighted people.

gccs14r 2 years ago

Dryland farming is coming to western Kansas whether they want it or not. They will not be able to import water in sufficient quantity to continue as they are. In fact, they'll be lucky if they can import enough water to drink. No one is going to lay a freshwater pipeline out there from any place that still has water, so it's all going to come in by truck. Good luck with making that work.

ThePilgrim 2 years ago

Growing corn in Southern Kansas, where it is not suited. Growing corn, and basically anything, in Western Kansas where in some places it can barely support grassland.

ThePilgrim 2 years ago

But let's also take the blame/responsibility local. We get most of our water from Clinton Lake, which is at really low levels. Yet businesses along Wakarusa between 6th and Clinton Pkwy that have continued to water the grass all winter.

Ken Lassman 2 years ago

I agree, Pilgrim. Considering the likelihood of increasingly frequent droughts and heat waves in our future, it is only common sense for our zoning regulations and building codes to reflect a hotter, drier norm. A bunch of this is regulated by the free market, and to their credit, there are lawn services and companies who are offering more drought tolerant trees, shrubs and lawns, but when it comes to the public water supply it seems that the city/water districts would be smart to help that process along by setting higher water efficiency guidelines in the same way that the automobile industry is responding to higher CAFE mileage standards. After all, everyone needs water.

Does anyone know whether the city has a drought tolerant tree species mix for developers to use for when they plant their mandatory trees in the right of way?

buffalo63 2 years ago

We spent this past spring trying to revive our yard, but it looks like we will lose it again this year when we have water restrictions put into place.

verity 2 years ago

A good time to plant a more drought tolerant yard. See my post below.

I know I'm on a soapbox---

Ron Holzwarth 2 years ago

As water becomes more scarce in the midwest, the price of food will go even higher, as not much of it will be locally produced and will need to be brought from farther away. That's just the way it is going to be. Also, a major industry in the midwest will be undermined, and it appears there will be nothing to replace it with. And we won't have much else to export from the midwest either. So, a population exodus might be expected, along with a drop in residential property values, which would make it a double whammy.

Dryland farming is certainly possible in western Kansas, but it requires the employment of very few workers. My father was a dryland farmer for his whole farming career. But, he did supplement it with custom work for other farmers. And that was a good thing too, because some years there was no crop at all. You never could tell if there was going to be a crop at all, due to inclement weather, until after the harvest.

Water 2 years ago

News papers in communities next to the ocean write tidal information in their daily paper. News papers in community's next to rivers used to mention water levels. Maybe the LJW would be interested in devoting a tiny square to provide more awareness. After all, most of us don't even see the Kaw anymore. We just drive over it and don't even notice it's there. Surely the Army Corp of Engineers or Friends of the Kaw could provide river water levels at several locations to post in the paper.

btsflk 2 years ago

The proposal to change the corporate farming laws in Ks and welcome big agribusiness seems to pave a shorter road to depletion.

verity 2 years ago

If you plant native and adaptable drought tolerant plants and ground covers in your yard and use a lot of mulch, you can get by with little or no watering after the plants are established even in the kind of weather we have had the last two years. In fact, if you have clay soil, you can actually kill some of these plants with too much watering. Doesn't require mowing, except maybe once a year, and some clean up during the growing season. Don't have to fertilize, use weed killer, etc. once you have the ground covered.

And it's much more interesting than a lawn. Changes all the time and is colorful. There are any number of evergreen trees, bushes and other plants that survive well in this climate for winter interest and you can use all kinds of hardscapes as you don't have to move or mow around them.

I'm not talking about the ugly "prairie reconstructions"---you can have most any kind of garden/yard using wild prairie plants selectively.

Contact the local county extension office for more information for your area.

Richard Heckler 2 years ago

First convincing city hall to actually become water conservation minded may be a tough task. The real estate industry cannot think in those terms.

We've closed in a drought for several years now. This is not the making of one year or two. More and more houses = more and more water demand. More and more lawns that are a wasteful item in terms of natural resources.

How about less lawn and more mulched beds showing "Kansas Landscapes" = low low maintenance? We have purchased several self contained planters aka "self watering".

Instead of throwing away yard materials,leaves and such save them for home use aka mulch.

Trumbull 2 years ago

I agree whole heartedly with the editor on this issue. When I moved here in 92' there was talk of the aquifer drying up. Then I would hear periodic reports every year or so only to find out that the problem is still present and can't be swept under the rug.

It is interesting that there are not as many deniers on this issue when it is closer to home, and something can actually be done about it. But the same issues that apply to the above situation, also apply to atmospheric conditions that I believe are partly man-made. I am concerned for future generations and I believe we need to do something about it.

So many times recently, during this warm winter, I mention this to folks, and many of them say, "well there is nothing we can do about it". I'd like to think we can.

Lawrence Morgan 2 years ago

The media, including the Journal-World, have played a strong role in this. If you will notice, there is no word for "Environment" anywhere in the headings at the top of the page. But that's just the beginning - there are many areas that the Journal-World doesn't cover. But there's plenty of coverage for sports.

Lawrence Morgan 2 years ago

Also, there is very little coverage of the rest of Kansas - each newspaper operates as though it has a narrow focus, and not the whole state.

What needs to happen is to have the newspapers link together, so that much more news from the rest of the state is featured, as well as citizen journalists - who most people can't even find any more.

Besides having relegated user blogs - citizen journalism - to a non-existent area that is impossible to get to for people with average time and computer skill, subjects such as world affairs, animals, technology, among many others - are considered nonexistent in this paper.

When I was a KU student, I didn't care much about these things - but today is completely different, with the internet and the world linked more and more closely together. If I were in my twenties or thirties today, I would appreciate broad coverage of these things.

The Journal-World, for all its good aspects - especially the creativity of some of its articles - is far behind in many of these areas.

Katara 2 years ago

So whatever ended happening to this?

And would it make any impact at all if Brownback didn't refuse?

Chris Golledge 2 years ago

Depletion of the Ogallala is one of a set of overlapping problems. In addition, climate zones are shifting as the world gets warmer. In a general sense, Kansas is becoming like Texas. In Texas, wheat production is around 30 bushels per acre on average; in Kansas, production has been running around 40 bushels per acre. So, we can expect a decline in yields even if there were plenty of water. In addition, not every year will be a drought or heat wave, but the frequency of the events like last year has gradually increased from 1 in 100 year events, to 1 in 10 year events. This tend has been on the increase for 30 years, and we can expect more of the same.

Kansas corn yields run around 130 bushels per acre. Texas yields run around 125 bushels per acre. There isn't much difference there, but corn requires a lot more water than wheat, and that brings us back to Ogallala depletion and shifting climate.

sciencegeek 2 years ago

The status of the Ogallala quifer won't matter pretty soon anyway. After the oil pipeline is built and the first spill contaminates the water and the limestone holding it, it wion't be a water resource any more, and we won't have to worry about it.

Centerville 2 years ago

Big Oil / Big Gas LOVE wind power. Anyone with oil/gas royalties gives a hearty thumbs-up to every turbine they see. Because (as you're supposed to act as if you don't know) wind turbines are only yard art for natural gas electrical production. Ever heard of government darling Warren Buffett or Northern Natural? Wind only occasionally (and unexpectedly) shaves peak loads. It's renewable in the sense that Big Oil/Gas continues to explore and find new natural gas formations.

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