With another year gone by, measurements need not even be taken to know the Ogallala Aquifer dropped another 2 to 4 feet. Every year the underground water source, one of the largest aquifers on the planet, naturally recharges itself at a rate of less than one-half inch per year -- while irrigators deplete it by 48 to 96 times that amount.
It is a well-known and documented tragedy taking place with no relief in sight. A study released last year by Kansas State University researchers revealed current crop irrigation will result in 70 percent of the Ogallala vanishing within 50 years. It was a mere 50 years ago that 97 percent of the aquifer existed, prior to the introduction of large-scale irrigation.
"Society has an opportunity now to make changes with tremendous implications for future sustainability and livability," the study concluded. "The time to act will soon be past."
With approximately 20 percent of the state's Gross Domestic Product at risk, let alone the actual future habitation of western Kansas, one would like to think serious and urgent action is taking place in Topeka.
There is talk, to be sure. Some of it rather mind-boggling in its lack of seriousness.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture currently is developing a new penalty matrix to deal with irrigators who pump beyond their annual allotment. While lauded by some legislators sitting on the House Special Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources, one elected official is skeptical of the effort because she doesn't believe the over-pumping is intentional.
"There are people who don't look at their water meter," said Rep. Sharon Schwartz, R-Washington. "They don't realize they're over-pumping."
Were this naivety on her part, it could be corrected. Closely monitoring a company's inputs -- its factors of production -- is pretty basic Business 101. An only slightly higher level concept, following the laws that affect one's choice of industry, also is in play. Merely two years ago, the Kansas Legislature passed amendments to the Water Appropriations Act that included expanding flex accounts for irrigators from two years to five years. To operate legally, all irrigators need to track their usage. If they over-pump one year, they need to under-pump another so the five-year rolling average doesn't exceed the permitted quantity.
Rep. Schwartz certainly should be aware of that law. It passed both chambers unanimously.
She also should be acutely aware of any ag-related regulation or trend, as she has spent decades working for Schwartz Family Farms and Pork Chop Acres, both in Washington County. She's a hog farmer who is not above flouting potential conflicts of interest as agricultural and hog-farming bills work their way through the Statehouse.
Such antics are not helpful to devising necessary solutions to the depleting Ogallala Aquifer.
The acting secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Jackie McClaskey, knows the warning letters and even $500 per day fines currently issued are not enough to stop irrigators from abusing the system.
"(You) have people using that as a business practice to intentionally over-pump," McClaskey said recently.
The Ag Department needs to craft severe penalties, which the Legislature needs to approve. Deflections and misdirections from legislators who know better -- or should -- are not productive. Mitigating the damage already caused to the aquifer should be a top priority.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry