Purchase photos

Irrigators offer support for limits

9/15/2012

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

HOXIE -- Roch Meier proved to be a man of relatively few words when he stepped to the podium to talk about an enhanced management plan affecting water use across his entire farm.

"I'm for all this," he told Constance Owen, the hearing officer for the first step in what would be the first local enhanced management area in portions of Sheridan and Thomas counties. "I want water around here for my grandkids."

Thursday's hearing was the first step in a process made possible with the passage of legislation earlier this spring, allowing groundwater management districts to ask the Division of Water Resources to approve locally-approved plans to extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer.

With a light shower the night before, nearly 50 farmers filled the Sheridan County Courthouse where the meeting was conducted.

The high priority area dubbed Sheridan 6 has been struggling with how best to deal with a declining water table for years, a task that broke down last year when it became apparent state water law didn't provide enough flexibility to reduce water use without local input from irrigators.

As an outgrowth of the Ogallala Aquifer Advisory Committee, the LEMA bill was proposed by the Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 4, which includes Sheridan 6.

Soon after legislative approval, the GMD submitted its plan for the enhanced management area, which would limit irrigators to 11 acre-inches of water a year.

That's nearly a 20-percent reduction in water use.

Covering 99 sections of land, the total water use for the five years the LEMA would be in force would be limited to just shy of 114,000 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot of water contains approximately 326,000 gallons.

While virtually all of the testimony offered was supportive, irrigator Harold Murphy voiced concerns, sidestepping either support or opposition.

He voiced concern about the economic effects of the reduction along with concerns about coping with long-term drought with lower water use.

"Yet we're the guinea pigs," he said.

Concern has been raised about the boundaries of the LEMA, and there have been suggestions the reductions should instead be put in place across the entire GMD.

He also questioned recent comments made by state officials urging dairies and others involved in animal agriculture to "come to western Kansas because we have the water."

"I don't know what we're doing here if that's the case," Murphy said.

His was the only voice of concern, as others urged the state to move ahead with the process.

Among them was Scott Foote, whose family owns Hoxie Feedyard, a main buyer of grain from area irrigators. The feedlot, with 18 wells in the Sheridan 6 area, also would be affected by the reductions, including a livestock limit of 12 gallons of water per animal each day.

"The economic benefits over the long term are greater than the economic harm in the short term," he said. "I think it's the right first step in extending the life of the aquifer."

After thanking the farmers for their comments in the "historic endeavor," Owen said she would present her findings to DWR Chief Engineer David Barfield.

If she finds the provisions of the law have been met, a second, more detailed hearing would be conducted before the management area could be implemented.