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Ogallala Aquifer--A race to the bottom

By Doug Rich


KANSAS WATER CONFERENCE— Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (left) welcomed an overflow crowd to the Governor's Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas held Oct. 30 and 31 in Manhattan, Kan. Brownback said that the future depends largely on how we manage the Ogallala Aquifer. (Journal photo by Doug Rich.)

The Ogallala Aquifer took center stage at the Governor's Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas held Oct. 30 and 31 in Manhattan, Kan.

One western Kansas farmer in attendance at the two-day meeting described the Ogallala Aquifer situation as a "race to the bottom." About the only question that remains to be answered is how fast we get to the bottom.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the High Plains Aquifer underlies 111.8 million acres in parts of eight states, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. When substantial irrigation with groundwater began in 1950, water level declines began in the aquifer. By 1980 water levels in parts of the aquifer under Texas, Oklahoma, and southwestern Kansas had declined by more than 100 feet.

From pre-development (1950) to 2009 water levels declined more than 10 feet in 26 percent of the aquifer area, more than 25 feet in about 18 percent of the aquifer, and more than 50 feet in about 11 percent of the aquifer, according to USGS calculations. Total water storage in the High Plains aquifer in 2009 was estimated at 2.9 billion acre-feet, a decline of nearly 9 percent from pre-development storage.

"If we extend the life of the aquifer, future generations will call us wise," Gov. Sam Brownback said. "If we don't, they will consider us selfish. It is on us. It is a local decision and not one the state is going to make."

"We must conserve and extend the life of the Ogallala," Brownback said. "It is up to us to figure out how we get that done while at the same time maintaining our economic activity."

Bill Blomquist, Ph.D., Purdue University, said grim trigger strategies do not work well when managing a shared pool resource. Blomquist said graduated sanctions work better over time, allowing people to make mistakes.

"People are fallible but capable of learning," Blomquist said.

A system that gives people opportunities to vary water use is better than an all-or-none solution. Blomquist said this allows for small, marginal adjustments. He said it helps to build in a way for people to benefit from constraints such as the opportunity to lease or sell a portion of their water rights. This allows people to be compensated for restraints on water use.

Blomquist said that resource management needed local leadership and he emphasized the need for nested institutions. Blomquist said to properly manage a shared resource like the Ogallala Aquifer cooperation is necessary at all institutional levels from local to state to regional to inter-state.

Farmers in Sheridan County, Kan., are developing a Local Enhanced Management Area to limit irrigation and extend the life of the aquifer. Scott Foote, Hoxie Feed Yard, said they hope to have the LEMA approved by the state as soon as Jan. 1, 2013.

"We are asking the state to regulate us and that is not an easy thing to do," Foote said. "Basically, we are asking the state to help us manage a resource that way we want to manage it."

There have been some major challenges to overcome in development of this LEMA in northwest Kansas. Foote said the first challenge was how to set the borders for the LEMA. They generated a map using the long-term average declines in the aquifer to establish borders.

The second challenge was convincing producers that it pays to save water. Foote said producers were being asked to donate to the system.

"We will reduce income by producing fewer bushels of grain," Foote said.

Steve Irsik, Ingalls, Kan., was part of the first Groundwater Management District formed in southwest Kansas. He said at that time the prevailing attitude was "drill baby drill."

"We knew we had to slow this down," Irsik said. "There were just too many straws sucking water out of the Ogallala."

Irsik developing LEMA's are the next great opportunity for conservation.

"Just go south of Amarillo if you want to see what it is like to run out of water," Irsik said.

Another option for conserving the remaining water in the Ogallala Aquifer and maintaining growers' income is to plant more dryland crops like grain sorghum. Last year Kansas farmers grew around 2.7 million acres of grain sorghum, which is down from 8 million acres planting in the 1950s.

Gary Harshberger, who serves on the Bonanza Bioenergy and Arkalon Energy Boards, said grain sorghum is a perfect fit because the infrastructure is in place. He said we need to develop a commodity that will produce the same amount of income as corn.

One of the drawbacks for planting grain sorghum is top end yield. Greg Graff, Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission, said that 20 years ago grain sorghum yielded the same as corn when irrigated but corn yields have advanced.

"We need it up around 200 to 220 bushels an acre like corn," Graff said. "We need to get our top end yields up for grain sorghum."

Tim Lust, National Grain Sorhgum Producers executive director, said when compared per inch of irrigation, grain sorghum is a great cop. But it needs to be more profitable to be a part of the water solution.

Dale Rodman, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture, said we probably won't understand the true value of the Ogallala until we pull the last gallon out of the ground. However, by then the race to bottom will be over.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at richhpj@aol.com.

Date: 11/12/2012



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