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As Aquifer Dwindles, Rural Kan. Wells Run Dry

Frank Morris
Harvest Public Media

The drought, now in its third year in parts of western Kansas is taxing a resource that has been under pressure for decades: the High Plains Aquifer system.

The aquifer is enormous, but it’s running low in places, forcing a move to dry land farming, and farmers aren’t the only ones effected.

The drought has been burning up crops, lawns and trees for three years now. But there are places where you wouldn’t even know it’s dry, like at the Garden City Big Pool, in Garden City, Kan.

"Back in its heyday, I think this was considered the largest swimming pool in the world," says Chelsea Koksal, showing off the 2.5 million gallon swimming pool, dug by hand in the 1920s. 

"It’s about the size of a football field, filled from the High Plains Aquifer."

It is about the size of a football field and was filled from the High Plains Aquifer.

"(It’s) kind of the gem of Garden City, I would say," says Koksal.

But, it’s not really a lot of water.

"It’s a drop in the bucket. It’s nothing," says Rex Buchanan, director of the Kansas Geological Survey.

Buchanan says western Kansas towns and industries use only a tiny fraction of the groundwater here, about 3 percent of what comes out of the aquifer. Out in western Kansas the signature sound of agriculture isn’t a tractor’s motor, it’s one powering irrigation pump.

There are about 39,000 irrigation wells in Kansas, and many run day and night for months at a time. By season’s end they will have pumped enough to fill a pool the size of the one in Garden City- more than 700 miles deep.

That's lot of water, and says Buchanan, that's a real game changer for an arid climate like the one in western Kansas. 

"You’ve packing plants, because you’ve got cattle, because you’ve got corn, because you’ve got water," he says. "At the end of the chain, if you follow the link far enough, it’s always water."

But water is getting harder to come by.

Across much of the High Plains Aquifer, water levels have been falling since irrigation took hold. The three year drought has farmers pumping to, and sometimes past, the legal limit. In southwest Kansas levels falling fast, and some wells are running dry. Neighbors are suing neighbors over water rights. And the pain’s not confined to the farm.

"Just for instance: we had one well with a 4.4 foot drop in static water level, another with a 10.3 foot drop," says  Fred Jones, City Manager of Lakin, Kan. population 2200.

Those numbers are one year drops, another Lakin well has gone completely dry, and the rest have issues.

"If you look out past that center pivot irrigation there, you’ll see a little white cube. That’s well #7. That’s our most problematic well for uranium," says Fred Jones, driving the streets of Larkin.

The rising concentrations of toxins in Lakin’s water forced an unpopular construction project on the outskirts of town, the City of Lakin Nano Filtration Water Treatment Plant.

The total cost of the plant was $6 million, which will be paid off by around 1,000 water customers, whose bills have more than doubled.

Family wells are also going dry.

"Everybody needs a new well," says Ruben Bartell, a second-generation well driller and shop owner in Mead, Kan.

Bartell is 56 and has forearms that, except for the lack of tattoos, could pass for Popeye’s.

"I’ve been really busy. Probably the last three years been the busiest we’ve ever been," says Bartell. "Talking about the depletion of the Ogallala, and probably more severe now than it has been."

Anthony Stevenson, whose family has farmed in western Kansas for generations, has switched many of his acres to dryland un-irrigated farming. That has meant a meager harvest of wheat on some fields and even worse-looking corn on the land he’s trying to grow without irrigation.

“Some of it’s already flashing, that brown corn over there, it doesn’t matter if it rains 10 inches tomorrow,” Stevenson says. “It’s done.”

Unless his grandkids can figure out how to make crops grow with a fraction of the water he uses, dryland farming is the future of western Kansas, Stevenson says.

But he and other Kansans hope that modern farming techniques can stave off a return to the Dust Bowl when they have to wean themselves off of irrigation from the High Plains Aquifer.

This is the second part of a two-part series on the High Plains Aquifer from Harvest Public Media, you can read the first part here.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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