Symposium: Climate change putting stress on Kansas water resources

The current drought gripping all of Kansas and much of the western United States may seem severe now, but it is not abnormal for a region that has seen cyclical droughts for much of the last 1,000 years.

What ought to concern Kansans more, a panel of experts said during a symposium Friday night at Kansas University, is the longer-term change in the region’s climate that will put greater demand on the state’s dwindling water resources.

“From a climate perspective, it looks like it’s going to get drier,” said Johannes Feddema, a climatologist and chairman of the KU geography department. “And the main reason is not so much the change in precipitation. It’s because it’s going to get warmer, which leads to more evaporation and transpiration.”

Feddema was one of seven experts in climate science, geology, agriculture and water policy who spoke at the symposium called “Beyond the Long Hot Summer: The Future of Water in Kansas.” The event was hosted by C-CHANGE, a research program at KU funded by the National Science Foundation.

Many of those who spoke said the changing climate will require farmers and other water users to adapt to those changes by reducing their demand for water. But so far, they said, that message has been slow to seep into many people’s minds.

Anthony Layzell, a doctoral student in geography and a research assistant at the Kansas Geological Survey, said the current drought is not yet on the scale of what Kansas saw in the early 1950s, which was the worst drought since official records have been kept, or the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, which was the second-worst.

But Layzell said his analysis of tree rings and other geological data show that three- to five-year droughts have occurred regularly in this area, dating back to the early 1700s. And going back further into the Middle Ages, he said, evidence shows cyclical droughts lasting 10 or even 50 years were not uncommon.

What appears to be happening now, Layzell said, is that droughts are happening at about the same frequency, about one or two severe ones per century, but they may be getting progressively more severe as the region bounces between periods of extreme drought or extreme wetness, with western Kansas being more drought-prone than the east, and the southern part of the state more drought prone than the north.

Aavudai “Anandhi” Swamy, who teaches agronomy at Kansas State University, presented research showing that growing seasons in much of Kansas are changing, with spring thaws coming earlier than they used to and the first fall freeze coming later. She concluded that farmers in certain regions of the state need to adjust their planting schedules, but they also need to think of ways to use less water, such as changing to different types of crops, or even to perennial crops that can hold moisture in the soil.

For years, state agencies in Kansas have been encouraging farmers to adapt their practices by shifting to dry land, or no-till farming, as well as changing to less water-intensive crops like grain sorghum instead of irrigated corn and wheat.

But Don Steeples, who teaches geophysics at KU and also farms about 2,500 acres in Rooks County in western Kansas, said farmers in that region are reluctant to switch to dry land or no-till farming for pure economic reasons.

“My brother, being an agricultural banker, sees their (no-till farmers) financial statements, and he says until he sees their financial statements looking better than they do now that they’re going to stay away from no-till,” Steeples said. “He refers to it as no-profit farming.”