State water officials said Kansas has had a ‘de facto’ policy to eventually drain the aquifer
COLBY — Kansas should scrap its de facto policy of draining the Ogallala Aquifer, a state board decided Wednesday.
Instead, the board said, the Kansas government should take steps to stop the decline of the aquifer, which supplies water to one-sixth of the world’s grain supply, and save it for future generations.
“It has taken decades for this to be said formally in writing by an official state body,” said Connie Owen, director of the Kansas Water Office. “… This is nothing less than historic.”
Saving the water source that supports Western Kansas’ economy and communities may seem like an obvious stance to take, but for about 70 years, the state’s policies and management decisions have reflected the idea that eventually, the Ogallala would dry up, said Earl Lewis, Kansas’ chief engineer.
The Kansas Water Authority, which is made up of agricultural and industrial water users and utilities, wants to chart a new course. It voted almost unanimously Wednesday to recommend that the state scrap the policy of “planned depletion.”
“It’s time to deal with this while we still have some choices,” said John Bailey, a member of the Kansas Water Authority from Pittsburg. “If we don’t, we’re going to find ourselves in a very bad situation.”
The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest underground sources of fresh water, stretches across parts of eight states from South Dakota to Texas. After World War II farmers started pumping water from it to irrigate crops in arid western Kansas, establishing the region as a booming farming economy. For decades, the water was used with little thought of ensuring enough remained for future generations.
But now, the water is running out. Some parts of the aquifer have half the water they had before irrigation on the aquifer began. Parts of western Kansas have an estimated 10 years of water left. There’s little surface water since streams that reliably flowed through the area in 1961 all but disappeared, according to the Kansas Geological Survey.
Draining the aquifer would fundamentally change life in western Kansas. Farm properties would lose their value if there’s no water to grow a crop. Families could lose their livelihoods and communities could disappear.
But while it’s widely accepted that the Ogallala is essential to western Kansas, Kansas Water Authority chairwoman Dawn Buehler said many farmers have been waiting on the government to tell them it’s time to do something.
“We’ve heard that over and over from people — that, ‘Well, you know, we’re not at a dangerous zone yet because they’ll let us know when it’s time,’ ” Buehler said.
She continued: “I think the importance of today was saying, ‘It’s time.’ ”
A vote to change course
The Kansas Water Authority, which meets roughly every two months in different locations around the state, voted Wednesday to place language in the body’s annual report to the governor and legislature saying the “policy of planned depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is no longer in the best interest of the state of Kansas.”
The report will also recommend the state create a formal process to establish goals and actions to “halt the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer while promoting flexible and innovative management within a timeframe that achieves agricultural productivity, thriving economies and vibrant communities — now and for future generations of Kansans.”
It had wide support among the authority members.
“My opinion of this is that it should have been done 15 years ago or 20,” said Lynn Goossen, a farmer from Colby who serves on the Kansas Water Authority and the board of the groundwater management district in northwest Kansas.
Goossen said there are parts of Kansas where the aquifer still has abundant water left but that people are “sticking their heads in the sand” rather than saving it.
Some water users have pursued a longshot idea to draw water from the Missouri River via an aqueduct to southwest Kansas. They trucked 6,000 gallons of water from northeast Kansas across the state as a “proof of concept.”
The goal to “halt” the decline of the aquifer gave pause to one member of the authority who asked that the statement instead say officials should “address” the decline of the aquifer.
Randy Hayzlett, a farmer and rancher from Lakin who serves on the authority, was the lone vote against the language, though the subsequent vote to send the full annual report to policymakers was unanimous.
Hayzlett said he couldn’t support establishing the goal without details about what it would mean to “halt” the decline of the aquifer.
“That’s a pretty strong word, and it’s going to affect a lot of people,” he said.
Hayzlett said he wanted to do everything possible to remedy the decline of the Ogallala but didn’t want to throw a word out there without a plan to achieve it.
“Is it going to halt declining the aquifer? Is it going to halt the economy of western Kansas?” he said. “Just what’s it going to put a cap on and then how are we going to get there?”
Lewis said Kansas has talked about the issue of the Ogallala Aquifer for 50 years. If authority members wait for a plan, he said, they’ll get bogged down in the details.
“What you’re doing is really setting a course,” Lewis said. “You’re saying, ‘I want to go in that direction. … I don’t know how I’m going to get there and it’s going to take a lot of us working together to get there.’”
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