Add this to the stack of news articles and editorials that have been written about the depletion rate of the Ogallala Aquifer. (Or siltation at the state’s reservoirs, for that matter.) Nevertheless, it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed, even though history says it will be ignored again this time.
Yet another study, this one released recently by Kansas State University, reiterates what has been reported for years: More water is being mined from the precious resource than is being recharged and, without dramatic changes, the aquifer will be virtually running on empty in a matter of decades.
The aquifer, a vast underground water supply that stretches from Texas to South Dakota, is being relentlessly pumped to irrigate crops in the high plains of western Kansas.
Landowners there have become more addicted to corn and cattle than any crackhead is to meth, and the corn-and-cattle habit depends upon the aquifer for its fuel. At this point, after so many years, it may be understandable, although it’s worse than simply lamentable. And that’s compounded because the situation continues to be ignored.
Irrigation efficiency may serve only to extend the economic viability of pumping, despite any minor mitigation by groundwater management districts and other political entities. It’s sad that there’s no proven 12-step program to wean landowners from this habit.
Perhaps the situation is an invitation for another “experiment” by Gov. Sam Brownback, himself a former Kansas secretary of agriculture. It would, however, require more than the voodoo of economist Arthur Laffer or the experience and “accomplishments” of the revolving door of his administration’s department heads to tackle this issue.
In the meantime, the study’s obvious conclusion is that pumping less would extend the aquifer’s life. An 80 percent reduction in pumping, however, might translate into a reduction of nearly 500,000 head of cattle. That’s not just tons of hamburger; it’s a truckload of dollars for the fragile economy west of U.S. Highway 81.
More than corn and cattle are at stake, though. The report warns that water wells will be affected also.
K-State civil engineer David Steward, who led the study, said, “We aren’t telling people what to do, but we are telling family farmers who want to hand down their farms to the next generation what steps they might take to make it possible.”
Unfortunately, it isn’t the first time the alarm has been given. Predictably, it won’t be the last time, either. It’s simply too easy to put off dealing with the situation and keep those irrigation pumps running.