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Groundwater depletion looms as threat to future growth in Kansas

by Carolyn Orr ~ October 2013 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Farmers and lawmakers in Kansas are struggling to come up with solutions to a problem that threatens the economic future of the state — its primary source of groundwater is being depleted at unsustainable rates.
According to a recent study by Dr. David Steward of Kansas State University, given current usage, the amount of water Kansas farmers can extract from the Ogallala aquifer will start to fall in just 10 years. The aquifer is a vast underground lake that runs under parts of eight states and provides almost a third of the nation’s groundwater.
If current irrigation trends continue, only 31 percent of the original contents of the aquifer in Kansas would remain by 2060, the study found. And once depleted, it could take between 500 and 1,300 years to refill.
With no change in water use (Kansas pumped 1.3 trillion gallons in 2011), farmers will still be able to harvest more corn for another generation, though, because technology — better irrigation systems and genetically improved corn — will let them use the water more efficiently. Kansas is a top agriculture state — No. 1 in sorghum, No. 2 in wheat and in the top 10 for corn and cattle — but this production comes at a high water cost.
The report showed that while water-use efficiency is increasing about 2 percent a year, immediately cutting water use by 20 percent could extend the aquifer’s lifetime through the year 2110. The problem is that this would also decrease crop production to levels of 20 years ago.
Kansas officials have been working on water issues longer than that. In 1972, the Legislature set up five Groundwater Management Districts with the objective of establishing water rights and conserving groundwater. These districts, in central and western Kansas, have installed meters to measure water usage and have prohibited construction of new wells in some areas.
The districts were provided even greater powers in 2012 with passage of SB 310, which set up local enhanced management areas within each district. Within these smaller areas, landowners can agree to prohibit additional drilling, reduce groundwater withdrawal or “any other provisions needed to protect the public interest.”
Farmers in northwest Kansas used the LEMA provisions as well as those of SB 272 (also passed in 2012) to self-impose a 20 percent reduction in water withdrawals for the next five years. The bill allows multi-year “flex accounts” that let farmers use more water during drought years and reduce use later. Before, irrigators seeking such flexibility faced a 10 percent penalty.
Other legislation in 2012 (HB 2451) ended the requirement to use a water right or risk losing it. Even with conservation, though, water limitations are threatening future economic development.
“Water will be what limits growth in southwest Kansas,’’ says Kansas Sen. Larry Powell. ‘‘No matter how much we conserve and reduce, we will still be using more than the aquifer can recharge.”
The aquifer is declining everywhere, and in some areas, 15-foot declines in the water table have been observed. Irrigation is extracting nearly four times the water recharge.
In response, officials are exploring the feasibility of transferring water from the Missouri River (on the eastern side of the state) to western Kansas. This idea is not new; a 1982 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study found that a river dam and pump station could move excess Missouri River water 295 miles west through Kansas.
An updated proposal replaces the dam with a number of collector wells and an aqueduct to move the water to western Kansas. The fee currently paid for water by irrigators would cover the estimated $36 billion cost.
However, for a Missouri River aqueduct to be built, many political, engineering and legislative hurdles would have to be overcome. For example, states that share the Missouri currently do not have an existing compact agreement governing its use.
“We aren’t even sure we can get water rights from the Missouri [River], but when farm ground is being sold because the irrigation wells are being shut down, the idea is worth looking into,” Powell says.


Article written by Carolyn Orr, staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee. The committee's co-chairs are Indiana Rep. Bill Friend and Minnesota Rep. Rick Hansen.