A LEMA - a Local Enhanced Management Area - is a balance between stringent state authority and local control. Farmers voluntarily come together and agree to a set cutback of irrigation over a five-year period. However, after it is implemented, the plan does have teeth and is enforced by the state’s chief water engineer.

Sheridan 6 LEMA

So far, the Sheridan 6 LEMA is the state’s first - and only - LEMA. In a 99-square-mile section of northwest Kansas, farmers discussed ways to conserve groundwater for the next generation. The LEMA idea developed. The Groundwater Management District No. 4 board approved the concept, which was also passed by the Kansas Legislature in 2012. In 2013, irrigators began a five-year LEMA - with a mandatory benchmark to pump an average of 20 percent less from their water allocations over that period.

Program specifics: Farmers are limited to a total of 55 inches of irrigated water over five years – an average of 11 inches a year. There is also flexibility. Users have options to move water to different wells inside the LEMA and save water during wet years for drier years.

It's working: Brownie Wilson, water data manager with the Kansas Geological Survey, said the area was considered a high-priority area, with declines of 2 or 3 feet some years. The area rose in year four, while areas outside the LEMA have recorded drops in the water table.

“Because the water in the aquifer moves so slowly, we experienced a rise inside the LEMA and a drop in the water table outside of the LEMA; it shows that conservation does stay local,” said Lane Letourneau, with the Kansas Division of Water Resources.

How they changed: Different management strategies, crops and technology have helped farmers adjust to irrigation cutbacks. With new technologies like moisture sensors, when it rains, irrigators shut off their pivots.

Economics: Sheridan 6 farmers and others making changes have told Kansas Water Office Director Tracy Streeter they aren’t seeing a dip in yields or economic output.

“They are saving water and continue to be economically viable,” he said. 

Studies by Kansas State University Economist Bill Golden also back up these claims, showing profitable net returns even with the irrigation reductions. Cash flow per acre was about the same for farms inside the LEMA as it was outside. Cash flow per acre inch of water used was actually higher inside the LEMA boundaries.

Another five years: The Sheridan 6 LEMA ends this year, but officials have recently renewed the it for another five years with the same 11-inch-an-acre restriction, but farmers can roll over up to 5 inches forward of any allocations they saved from the first five years.

 

Other LEMAs being discussed

GMD 4 district-wide LEMA: Besides having the Sheridan 6 LEMA, northwest Kansas’ Groundwater Management District No. 4 had its first public hearing in August regarding district-wide conservation.

Letourneau said this plan would have irrigation limits on townships with significant declines. Townships with no significant declines would not see changes to their allotment. If finalized, the five-year program would begin Jan. 1, 2018.

Big Bend Prairie GMD 5: Since the late 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been expressing concerns about the diminished flows in the Rattlesnake Creek, which runs into the Stafford County wetlands.

But after years of trying to work with stakeholders to find solutions, the service in April 2013 filed impairment with the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Its 1957 water right is senior to roughly 95 percent of the basin’s water users.

Irrigators are looking at a LEMA to help with Quivira National Wildlife Refuge’s needs. Part of the discussion includes augmentation - taking water from an untapped area near Quivira where the water isn’t necessarily fit for irrigation because of its salinity. Water quality, however, would have to match what is flowing into the refuge.