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Opinion

Opinion

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

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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.

Comments

Centerville 1 year, 2 months 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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sciencegeek 1 year, 2 months 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.

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Chris Golledge 1 year, 2 months 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.

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Katara 1 year, 2 months ago

So whatever ended happening to this?

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

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mikekt 1 year, 2 months ago

My father used to refer to TV as the idiot box because of the amount of pointless shows that people watch that have little redeeming social value .

Nothing there has changed, for the most part, since my childhood.

TV is ADHD programming for the masses.

I mean the evening news consists mostly of people who got shot and sports stories about millionaires who make a living off of idiots, who pay good money to see them play or coach players . WOOOO-HOOOOO.

That noted, reading the sports page is probably of even less value than watching the idiot box .

But apparently some moron in the state legislature reads it, watches it, & has himself all wound up over which university plays which university in sports enough to actually try and legislate it all in Topeka.

Now you know why this state is so totally screwed up !

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mikekt 1 year, 2 months ago

If you are a water utility your fixed employe costs don't go down, just because you sell less water . So I would guess that along with the need to conserve, we would also see higher water rate costs to make up for a loss of water sale revenues .Happiness is.

The future is unknown, as to when the drought will break,.........if ever.

Perhaps if it does break, then maybe building more dams to create more large lakes like Clinton Lake to capture ground run off in this part of the state, wouldn't be a bad idea.

Yes I realize that land for lakes & building dams aren't free,..... but water is going to be a major future issue, like it or not.

Try imagining where Lawrence would be right now, if Clinton Lake wasn't around to feed our south treatment plant ?...... Not to mention the three upstream lakes that feed the Kansas River and our north treatment plant .

Not a fun thought !!!!!!!! As i am afraid that we'd be left high and quite dry !!!!!!

There are allot of absolutist ways that the world "should work" if we all embraced the same level of sanity, insanity, etc.! Those absolutist ways and five dollars, might get you that special cup of coffee somewhere, provided there is water around to make it with.

Political absolutistic nonsense, can not be sprayed on a house that is on fire or used to flush your toilet .

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Lawrence Morgan 1 year, 2 months 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.

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Lawrence Morgan 1 year, 2 months 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.

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Paul R Getto 1 year, 2 months ago

Cut off golf courses and private swimming pools. A good place to start conserving.

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Trumbull 1 year, 2 months 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.

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Richard Heckler 1 year, 2 months 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.

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Stacy Napier 1 year, 2 months ago

Too many people on this planet! and growing every day.

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verity 1 year, 2 months 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.

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Les Blevins 1 year, 2 months ago

I suppose if Governor Brownback saw my letter; he realized his pals in the oil industry would not be very happy if he had any hand in allowing renewable energy to take on a bigger role in the future of Kansas and would not be very supportive of any presidential bid.

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Les Blevins 1 year, 2 months ago

I'll forward the letter I sent to our new governor in January of 2011 to those who request it by email addressed to LBlevins (at) sunflower (dot) com with the words Brownback Letter in the subject line.

Here is a clip from that letter that the law firm of Stevens & Brown drafted for me:

Dear Governor Brownback:

Our firm represents Advanced Alternative Energy Corporation (“AAEC”) and its owner, Les Blevins.

Mr. Blevins has noted that you have “vowed to balance the state budget without a tax increase and improve the economy” and he believes his new energy technology can be a useful empowerment tool in helping universities and various agencies in the State of Kansas work together and achieve this important task.

Mr. Blevins has developed and patented a unique bioenergy technology and also has a vision of how it can be used to move the state forward on several fronts. As you commented at a recent meeting of the Lawrence Technology Association, “We need that person who has that entrepreneurial spirit who says, ‘I’ve got a dream, and I know how to get things done.’” Mr. Blevins believes that the manufacturing and installation of city and county scale energy efficiency products based on this new concept technology could create hundreds if not thousands of jobs in Kansas and around the nation.

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Les Blevins 1 year, 2 months ago

Speaking to the Lawrence Technology Association in February 2010, Brownback said the state should seek to attract new opportunities in wind power, other renewable sources of energy and the aviation industry. Brownback, a Republican who is running for governor, said the state needs to invest in these areas to position itself well for the future, and help to recruit new businesses to the state. “We need that person who has that entrepreneurial spirit who says, ‘I’ve got a dream, and I know how to get things done,’” Brownback told the group consisting of industry leaders interested in promoting growth in the technology sector. Brownback said growth and investment in these kinds of areas would help the state emerge from its current budgetary crisis.

Of course that was when Brownback was running for office and going all out to pull the wool over our eyes.

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Les Blevins 1 year, 2 months ago

Dolf, there are several types of fuel crops that do very well in arid areas. This means that the Western half of Kansas could be growing grains in some areas and fuel crops in others and growing, harvesting and transporting baled fuels to distributed power plants in every county. This would create a good number of rural sector jobs. But we cannot have rural rejuvenation and protect streams from sediment and ponds, lakes and reservoirs from siltation as long as we hold to the old model of how to run a farming state that has been fostered off on us by big agricultural corporations. So the fact is we have opted to sacrifice the State of Kansas to big business interests in fossil fuels and industrial farming and Governor Brownback wouldn't even answer my letter when I offered to help him steer Kansas along a better pathway since his buddies on the oil business wouldn't approve.

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Les Blevins 1 year, 2 months ago

Dolf, I would like to point out a misperception you continue to hold. Football is only a portion of the issue. A generation in the future is almost certain to demand to know why we were paying more attention to sports than what we are doing to our water and the atmosphere. The blame should be placed largely on the media who continue to devote an entire section of the paper to all sports coverage and barely mention what we are continuing to do to our environment. Until you guys begin appropriately covering the issues in the proportion to their importance to society the public will continue to be misled by you and your ilk.

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btsflk 1 year, 2 months ago

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

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Water 1 year, 2 months 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.

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Ron Holzwarth 1 year, 2 months 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.

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Paul R Getto 1 year, 2 months ago

The most precious of resources. Someday soon we will pay for our folly.

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ThePilgrim 1 year, 2 months 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.

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ThePilgrim 1 year, 2 months 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.

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gccs14r 1 year, 2 months 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.

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William Weissbeck 1 year, 2 months ago

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

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