A report released last week has assigned alarming numbers to a regional tragedy of the commons otherwise known as the Ogallala Aquifer that lies below Kansas: If crop irrigation continues at current levels, almost 70 percent of its water will be depleted within 50 years.
Researchers at Kansas State University articulated their findings from a four-year-long study in "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America." The team charted past, present and future aquifer-depletion rates and their effect on corn and cattle production.
"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."
Attempts have been made to reduce water usage by the Legislature, governor's office and the Kansas Water Office. New laws have been enacted that do improve many management practices, but irrigators have not lessened their use of this critical input. Sustained and persistent drought has not helped matters. As such, each individual acting in their own best self-interest for the short term continues to deplete the long-term sustainability of the land.
K-State researchers don't even anticipate irrigation amounts to peak until 2025, given current rates. Improvements in irrigation technology, crop genetics and water management strategies will allow increased production rates of corn and cattle until 2040.
Still, if by the year 2063 the High Plains Aquifer will only have 31 percent of its water left, it will be tough to explain to future generations. Particularly since 97 percent of the aquifer existed 50 years ago before large-scale irrigation began.
"The motivation for the study -- what we really wrote the paper for -- was the family farmer who wants to be able to pass his or her land on to their grandchildren and have their grandchildren have the same capacity, the same abilities for successful agriculture that they do," said one of the study's co-authors, professor David R. Steward.
Given the state's long-held aversion to non-family corporate farms, it will come down to whether today's farmers have any intention of passing on their livelihood. Immediate and voluntary 20-percent reductions such as those being implemented in Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 4, located in Sheridan and Thomas counties, do offer room for optimism.
But if irrigation decisions continue to be made based on corn and cattle prices, factoring in the amount of rainfall, the K-State report's conclusion does not bode well for succeeding generations whether farmers or not: "The future is bright in the near term but bleak beyond, and increased agricultural production may be realized before imminent reductions occur."
The aquifer needs to have water for western Kansans to have their home on the range. Private irrigation must decrease to prevent an avoidable tragedy from affecting us all.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry