Editorial: Aquifer addiction

The alarm once again has been sounded about the long-term impact of depleting the Ogallala Aquifer in order to irrigate crops in western Kansas.

September 4, 2013


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.


In_God_we_trust 7 months, 1 week ago

Since growing corn takes a lot of water from the aquifer, perhaps we should rethink the intelligence of ethanol plants that use corn, so that there is no longer such a market for corn to be grown for ethanol (which drives up the price of corn because of ethanol demand). Having water is more important than ethanol. Western Kansas can still grow beef for customers by feeding them grass, and just finish off, if needed, with grain before market. New technology that now exists, which will require those that preach "science", to open their eyes to new technology, can help replace the need for ethanol fuel which puts a demand on aquifer resources. This new technology can also help Kansas be a leader in developing a new modern manufacturing base to vastly broaden industry in Kansas, and diversify beyond agriculture.


Chris Golledge 7 months, 2 weeks ago

All our current grain crops are annuals. This means that a lot of energy and resources are used by the plant to grow root and stem every year. There is interesting work being done do develop a perennial grain, and those plants would use less water and be able to develop very deep root structure. They would be more like the grasses that used to grow there. The downside would be that anyone growing them would not be able to respond to market shifts quickly, or take advantage of new cultivars on any given year. But, maybe that is the future of farming in the dry land.


Nikonman 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Hepburn, there are maps available that show where the aquifer is located underground, but I'm not sure how accurate they are. And it's not always just small areas. Hays and Russell are two towns that can't get to the aquifer. They depend on the wells located next to the Smokey Hill River and are currently getting their water from Cedar Bluff Lake. Russell and Hays have been close to getting into a water war over the situation. There are plans in the works for Hays to pump water from a ranch in Edwards county all the way to Hays in the future but the cost is enormous. I would say that they need to go back to dry land farming now, no matter what the loss of yields may be. If the droughts continue, Lawrence will be affected. Get a map and note where all the water in the Kansas river comes from. Except for some out of Nebraska, it all comes from rivers in western Kansas.


Chris Golledge 7 months, 2 weeks ago

I'm thinking that the replenishment rate is so low that the Ogallala might as well be considered a finite resource, and any substantial use will deplete it in time. Using the resource yields higher profits that not using the resource. The question then becomes, do you want a lot of profit over a short term, or less profit over a longer term.

I think there has to be some regulation that results in additional cost to using more water than the next guy; otherwise, it is simply a race to get yours before the other guy does. A higher cost structure would create more of an incentive to using it more efficiently. Flood irrigation should become less cost effective under this model.


Lawrence Morgan 7 months, 2 weeks ago

This is a very impressive discussion, from which I've learned a great deal!

Thanks to everyone who has and will participate. I'm very knowledgeable on many areas, but not water, so it's very helpful to have these comments.

I just wonder why this article and its comments aren't reproduced elsewhere in newspapers, not just in Lawrence. There should be comments from throughout the state, and from other states, as well.

This is the kind of discussion that really benefits the reader, and gives light as to what possibilities there really are on the internet, and in journalism!


tomatogrower 7 months, 2 weeks ago

I've been reading the Worst Hard Time, the Read Across Lawrence, book. They didn't listen then, except to the "experts" who told them that plowing the land would bring a change to the climate and make it rain more. Now there is proof that the water will run out, but, hey, it will be the next generations problem, right? They need to find something to grow that needs less water. Corn just needs lots.


Richard Heckler 7 months, 2 weeks ago

So why is Lawrence, Kansas and Douglas County building a pump house in SE Lawrence presumably to supply new construction projects? This is reckless indeed.


Karl_Hungus 7 months, 2 weeks ago

"Like, the water that comes from the toilet?" "Brawndo's got what plants crave. It's got electrolytes!"


JohnBrown 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Water is a highly mobile natural resource. All appropriations of water are subject to control by the state of Kansas under the authority established in the Kansas Water Appropriation Act as amended April 6, 1995. In this Act, KSA 82a-702 states: “All water within the state of Kansas is hereby dedicated to the use of the people of the state, subject to the control and regulation of the state in the manner herein prescribed.” The lone exception for using water without an appropriation or permit is water used for domestic purposes. --WATER INVENTORY OF DOUGLAS COUNTY, KANSAS: SOURCES, RIGHTS, SUPPLIERS and WATER DEMAND PROJECTIONS by Larry Kipp, 2001.

Let's not blame the farmers. They ASKED the state for permission to use water and got it. The problem rests with those politicians setting the policies that require the civil servants to dole out the water rights.

But even if Kansas politicians all of a sudden started believing scientists, the aquifer would still become depleted because none of the politicians in our neighboring states believe in science either.

One way for the aquifer to truly become a 'commens' would be for the federal government to declare it a national resource and begin regulating it.

There are three benefits to this: first the water resource can become truly regulated, second, Kansas politicians don't have to be seen believing is science, and third, the Tea Party will have something new to complain about.

This is a win-win-win.



Les Blevins 7 months, 2 weeks ago

This new concept energy production technology is designed to serve as the core technology for county scale renewable energy production systems and energy efficiency improvements across America and around the world. This new concept technology consists of a novel new fuel combustion and gasification-conversion technology designed to provide an on demand power source for various stand-alone uses or to back up solar and wind energy systems; and in this way help double the deployment of both solar and wind energy projects. It can also supply liquid or gaseous biofuels such as clean renewable 3rd. generation cellulosic fuels or hydrogen and methane when back end technology is applied so it can stay viable even when we move into the hydrogen economy.


Les Blevins 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Something effective could be done to enable a significant reduction in water pumping from the Ogallala Aquifer if what I suggest could be considered in Topeka, but neither Gov. Brownback nor Lawrence leaders nor the Journal World will consider what I propose as it calls for placing incentives on planting drought tolerant energy crops instead of corn in areas that now depend on irrigation, and this is not acceptable to the fossil fuel people who rule the roost in Kansas. I have developed a power generation technology that is designed to use the energy crops as a fuel source and in this way create a market for the drought resistant crops.


Brock Masters 7 months, 2 weeks ago

The right to pump water has become an entitlement and like all entitlements is difficult if not impossible to end.

We have a state water engineer that is supposed to manage the atate's water, yes, the atate's water, not the irrigators water, but he is pretty ineffective.

Irrigation is big business and those that irrigate are politically powerful. Don't expect change. Expect the aquifer to be pumped dry.


Ron Holzwarth 7 months, 2 weeks ago

The real problem is that most people have a time horizon beyond which they do not worry about anything. Of course, that time horizon varies a great deal from person to person. And, the fact that the Ogallala Aquifer will be depleted and the High Plains will become an unproductive desert is an event that is beyond the time horizon that matters to most people. So, nothing that is effective will be done. That's reality.


Commenting has been disabled for this item.