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Crop choices

With current irrigation rates depleting the Ogallala portion of the High Plains aquifer by 2 to 4 feet annually, while the aquifer naturally recharges itself at the rate of less than one-half inch per year, it's obvious something has to change. Such an imbalance cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Absent the ability to coerce increased recharge from rain or snow in the region, it would appear limiting irrigation would be the most effective option to extending the aquifer's productive lifespan. However, that same irrigation helps sustain and grow the entire state economy. According to the Kansas Department of Agriculture, ag accounts for 19 percent of the state Gross Domestic Product and 17 percent of the labor force.

There has been no shortage of efficiency tactics employed by the stewards of Kansas farmland. Converting to no-till techniques, crop choices, improved irrigation technology, crop genetics and in some cases dryland farming come to mind immediately. The voluntary effort to reduce irrigation by a small slice in Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 4, as noted before, is exemplary.

Still, researchers at Kansas State University predict the aquifer to be 70-percent depleted within 50 years if current irrigation practices continue.

Leave it to the Kansas Water Authority to explore a radically different solution. Rather than focusing on use, the KWA is spending up to $300,000 to revisit a decades-old study that had suggested diverting excess water from the Missouri River to help refill the Ogallala. A 1982 study looked at the feasibility and cost of transferring the river water from near White Cloud and then moving it 360 miles through an aqueduct to a reservoir near Utica.

The price tag estimated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers back then was $3.6 billion. The Hays Daily News has discovered since reporting on this subject that the figure actually was reflected in 1976 dollars. Inflation during the past 38 years likely will result in an astronomical figure with the updated study.

It will be an uphill battle. Literally. White Cloud is situated at 883 feet above sea level. Utica's elevation? 2,625 feet.

We have confidence engineers could make it happen. More of a struggle might be found with water claims of other states and environmental impacts of both a lessened Mighty Mo and the aqueduct itself.

While the correct amount of money can make all hurdles passable, one question remains: Will it be a worthwhile investment for Kansas? Looking at the 19 percent of GDP, the local tax bases agriculture supports, and the communities that thrive because of farmers -- then it's worth exploring.

But before we get too far with planning this massive project, we would hope the new study recounts these facts about Kansas irrigators:

* They account for 85 percent of the consumptive use of water in the state.

* Of the 9.5 million acres planted with wheat in 2012, only 630,000 were irrigated; yields were 33.9 million bushels from irrigated land and 348.3 million bushels from non-irrigated. Kansas is the nation's top wheat producer without much reliance on irrigation.

* Corn farmers have a different story. The 3.1 million acres planted on non-irrigated land last year produced 121.2 million bushels, while the 1.6 million acres of irrigated corn yielded 258 million bushels. The production puts the state 10th in the country.

If the state eventually finds the water transfer plan makes sense and is worth the investment, we would offer it would have to come with serious strings attached. Crop choices might not be left to the individual farmer.

It doesn't fit with the limited free market ag economy existing today, but if production is dependent on enormous public investment -- the public needs to have a voice in future allocations of the aquifer. Profits still could be privatized, but the Department of Agriculture and the Kansas Water Authority will need to weigh in on planting decisions.

The loss of autonomy might be a small price to pay for the ability to stay in business.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net