MANHATTAN — Gov. Sam Brownback peered into the crystal ball of Kansas agriculture Wednesday to predict growth in public support for sustainable irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer and better field-management practices to reduce degradation of reservoirs.
Development of a conservationist’s mentality, including widespread use of technology to monitor soil moisture levels, will reduce water consumption and expand crop yields, the governor said. He said stream-bed restoration projects could slow the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus from fields that choke reservoirs with sediment and contributes to algae-bloom problems.
“We’ve got to keep working on the water issue,” Brownback said. “That’s going to be central. That’s going to be the key for us.”
Brownback spoke of his administration’s work on water policy to approximately 600 people attending the Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Manhattan. It was likely his last opportunity to address the conference participants given his pending nomination by President Donald Trump to serve as ambassador of international religious freedom.
He said Kansas landowners didn’t require the heavy hand of state or federal government to move on sustainable consumption of water and to do what was necessary to supply the world with food, fiber and fuel. Emergence of producer interest in water-conservation techniques and evidence the Ogallala is replenishing itself faster than anticipated are positive signs, he said.
“We know what we need to do. Let’s just get it done,” Brownback said. “What can I do in my operation, on my farm or in my community to save the water? I don’t need to have somebody else to tell me what to do.”
Brownback expressed gratitude to members of the Kansas Legislature for adopting bills that repealed a state law requiring irrigation water rights to be used or risk losing the privilege.
In addition, lawmakers agreed in 2013 to allow water-right owners to form a Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, to limit water use in a specific region to reduce the rate of groundwater decline.
Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, said state officials had intensified monitoring of the aquifer and reservoirs. LEMAs have been established to cover only about 5 percent of territory marked by the Ogallala and less than one-fourth of vulnerable stream banks leading to reservoirs have been addressed, he said.
He said sedimentation at Tuttle Creek Reservoir near Manhattan has been diminished from 4,400 acre feet per year to approximately 3,500 acre feet per year. Dredging of John Redmond Reservoir in Coffey County is a promising start to a long-term reclamation effort, he said.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Lewis said. “There’s never going to be enough federal and state money. We’ve got to motivate people to take action themselves.”
In the speech at the conference, Brownback said protecting the state’s water resources would sustain land prices, promote greater crop production and allow expansion of the agriculture footprint with new dairy and chicken operations. A large dairy processing plant is opening in Garden City and prospects of locating a new Tyson chicken facility are still good, he said.
In terms of Tyson, public opposition to construction of a $320 million bird production and processing complex near Tonganoxie led the company to withdraw in September from that site and consider options elsewhere in the state.
“The first shot at this didn’t go well,” Brownback said. “People said I got plucked.”