After decades of alarming headlines, Kansas may be on the verge of preserving an ancient groundwater resource that helped make it an agricultural powerhouse.
Since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, researchers have warned that farmers were pumping water from the part of the massive Ogallala aquifer that underlies Kansas faster than nature could replace it.
But a new emphasis on conservation spearheaded by Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is starting to reverse that longstanding trend.
Voluntary conservation efforts adopted by farmers in the northwest corner of state have exceeded expectations and convinced researchers that their widespread use could effectively halt depletion of the aquifer.
“The hour is late out there in western Kansas, in terms of aquifer conditions,” said Jim Butler, a senior scientist with the Kansas Geological Survey. “But all is not lost. There’s a lot we can do to, certainly, to lengthen the lifetime of this aquifer, and in certain areas we should be able to stabilize water levels.”
Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer joined Butler and other officials from the Geological Survey this week on a tour of western Kansas to draw attention to the success of the water initiative.
“The data reveals that the voluntary efforts happening as a part of the 50-year Water Vision are being rewarded,” Brownback said at a stop in Hoxie. “The Ogallala is replenishing itself faster than we previously knew. What was never thought possible is now within our grasp: sustainable use of the Ogallala aquifer is attainable.”
In 2012, farmers in a 99-square-mile area encompassing part of Sheridan County and a small slice of Thomas County agreed to form a Local Enhanced Management Area—a new groundwater management tool created by Kansas lawmakers that year. The Sheridan 6 LEMA was the first LEMA established in Kansas.
The Sheridan 6 LEMA requires irrigators to reduce their groundwater usage by 20 percent over five years. Failure to meet that target is punishable by a fine. But Ray Luhman, who heads the Colby-based Groundwater Management District 4, said there’s another penalty far more severe than any fine.
“There’s an automatic two-year suspension of your water right, so that means you don’t pump at all for two years,” said Luhman.
With that threat hanging over them, farmers in the LEMA have managed to cut their irrigation by more than the required 20 percent over the last four years, according to Butler, the groundwater scientist with the Geological Survey.
“Since 2013, every year they have pumped less than the lowest-pumping year in the preceding decade,” said Butler.
In fact, farmers in the LEMA have been able to “bank” enough water savings that if a drought were to occur, they could increase their irrigation without exceeding their five-year allocations, according to Butler.
Water levels in the aquifer have been declining by approximately seven inches per year on average across northwest Kansas, but that rate of decline has been slowed in the LEMA area. And Butler said widespread adoption of this approach—something he describes as “doable”—could extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer.
“Reductions on the order of, say, 25 percent in average annual pumping would lead to, on average, stable water levels across the aquifer for the next one to two decades,” said Butler.
Saving water and money
Farmers worry their operations might not be as profitable if they cut irrigation by that much. But agricultural economist Bill Golden, of Kansas State University, said the track record in the LEMA should ease those concerns.
“I have talked to the folks extensively that I’m monitoring, and they are convinced that they are making more money now than they were four or five years ago,” said Golden. “In several cases, the farmers are able to reduce their water use and reduce their inputs, and actually make more money in corn by doing that.”
They’re also saving water by planting less corn, and more crops that don’t require as much water, like grain sorghum. Golden said new technology is also helping farmers make better decisions about exactly when a field needs more water.
“Now you’ve got moisture probes out there. And if the moisture probes tell you you don’t need it, you trust the probe and you go on about your business,” said Golden.
The ability of farmers in the Sheridan 6 LEMA to remain profitable while dramatically cutting back on irrigation has others in their area interested in following their lead. Groundwater Management District 4, which covers all or parts of 10 counties in the northwest corner of the state, has proposed creating a LEMA for the entire district.
Manager Ray Luhman said the restrictions would not be as rigorous as in the Sheridan 6 LEMA, and would vary based on the rate of decline in the local water table.
“We know we’re pumping way too much water,” said Luhman. “There was too much water allocated out in the first place, and it’s time for us to step back a little bit, try to extend the life of this thing, and see what we can do to maintain our way of life.”
Brownback a catalyst
If the widespread adoption of conservation practices results in the stabilization of the Ogallala much of the credit should go to Brownback, Golden said.
“We can’t underestimate the impact the governor has had on water conservation. He has made it an issue. He’s promoted it. He’s listened to farmers,” said Golden. “When we can be optimistic today, it’s because of what the governor has done."
Bryan Thompson is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @KSNewsBryan.
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