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Aquifer's decline threatens economy

Published on -7/26/2014, 4:32 PM

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SALINA (MCT) — As a boy in the late 1940s, Gary Baker occasionally rolled out of bed at 3 a.m. to help his father harness a head of water meandering down the Great Eastern Ditch.
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The supply was diverted from the Arkansas River and collected in Lake McKinney, then released to feed a ditch system capable of flood-irrigating crops.
When water reached the Baker farm in western Finney County, it helped sugar beets, milo, wheat and other crops flourish in the semi-arid High Plains.
Ditch water was Baker's foray into irrigation, which caused agriculture to blossom in western Kansas and shaped his career.
"I've been around this thing for the last 50 years," said Baker, 74, a water right consultant and appraiser in Hugoton.
One constant over that half-century is that the massive Ogallala Aquifer has gotten smaller, and now a way of life that developed mainly during Baker's involvement in several aspects of the industry is threatened.
"We didn't start conserving soon enough," Baker admitted.
"I remember people saying we're never gonna run out. A lot of people thought that in the '50s and '60s, and I believed it then, too."
State officials have warned that doing nothing will result in the Ogallala being 70 percent depleted in 50 years and another 40 percent of the area irrigated will not support an irrigation well that pumps 400 gallons a minute. Baker said a 600-gallon well is needed in dry years to adequately irrigate a 125-acre circle of corn through a center pivot system.
Life expectancy varies
The life expectancy of the Ogallala varies by region, he said, from up to 100 years in areas of extreme southwest Kansas to less than 25 years in west-central parts of the state, in the vicinity of Scott City.
He farmed for a time in Kearny and Grant counties in Kansas and later ventured west. Baker was raising crops in Prowers County, in eastern Colorado, in 1965 when the Arkansas River flooded and wiped out 1,000 acres of his sugar beets. The experience pushed him back to farming in Kansas.
Baker was on the first Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3 board that formed in 1976 as a local control arm of state water law. It took a steering committee three years to seat the first 15-member governing board.
By then irrigation was under major development in the 12 counties of southwest Kansas, and GMD 3 eventually pumped more water than the other four districts combined.
"The state allowed over-appropriation until the district was formed. You didn't even need a permit to drill a well until Jan. 1, 1978, and southwest Kansas was developed real fast," he said.
State flexes muscle
The state had to flex its muscle and regulate the resource. Baker was chairman of the GMD 3 board when the state confronted farmer Arthur Stone and forced him to shut down two of three wells in southern Finney County. Stone had threatened to take up arms, he said, but in the end, the district and state won out.
"If the groundwater district had lost that, it would have lost everything," Baker said. "I think it's just a natural thing. Farmers are typically inclined to distrust government, especially in the environmental section of things."
The Water Appropriation Act of 1945 was all about building a water economy in western Kansas, Baker said, making the desert bloom with commodities that were sold or fed to cattle. Today, the beef industry trumps them all in Kansas. The southwest region produces more value for the Kansas economy than any other area in the state, said Mark Rude, executive director of GMD 3.
"It was a development act. People took hold of that, and we the farmers were encouraged to develop irrigation," Baker said.
An irrigation graveyard
New wells were drilled in some townships in southern Seward County as late as 2005, he said, while other areas were seeing wells go dry.
When he visits land that he once farmed near Ulysses, the area is like an irrigation graveyard with so many abandoned -- capped -- holes in the prairie. Concrete catch basins are filled with tumbleweeds and debris.
From 1950 to the 1970s, those wells fed ditches that transported water to fields. Center-pivot irrigation began to replace flood irrigation in the 1970s.
"There are 20 abandoned wells within 10 square miles," Baker said. "There were a lot of good wells that came and went. Many were drilled shallow, to 300 feet."
They were replaced with wells drilled to 500 to 700 feet, he said.
More wells to go idle
Baker predicts many more wells will be idled as the decline continues, far outpacing the Ogallala's yearly recharge rate of about one fourth of an inch.
"That conversion from irrigated to dryland farming is only gonna speed up," he said. "When a well begins pumping 200 or 300 gallons a minute, it's no longer feasible to use it for irrigation, but we'll still have a lot of water out here for domestic use."
Less irrigation is going to hurt the entire state. Quoting the Kansas Department of Agriculture, Rude said every acre of land that transitions from irrigation to dryland costs Kansas $3,960 annually in economic value, "from here on out."
There were once more than 10,000 irrigation wells in southwest Kansas. Today, there are 6,500 operating in the district, which comprises all or part of 12 counties, Rude said. But those large-bore wells are still collectively pumping 3.25 million gallons a day -- nearly 10 acre feet of water a minute, based on a 500-gallon-a-minute average -- throughout the growing season. In some cases, the wells pump from April through October.
That's enough water to fill up Kanopolis Reservoir, west of Salina, in just shy of four days.
By the time GMD 3 formed, water experts in Kansas had been warning irrigators for some 15 years that contrary to the consensus, the underground water resource was finite.
Not many listened, and when the 1980s arrived, irrigation was still rampant in southwest Kansas.
Today, the basis for so much wealth in the region -- and state tax revenue -- is threatened.
"What should we have done? I don't honestly know. If we had the rules then that they have today, just with well spacing, would've helped tremendously," Baker said.
They're not cooperating
It seems the evolution of conservation hasn't kept pace, he said, and decline in the aquifer has continued. Neighbors aren't cooperating.
"Look to the south of us in Oklahoma and Texas. You can still do what you want to do," Baker said. "A few people in Oklahoma are pumping water into Kansas, mostly to assist their irrigation in Kansas."
Politics played a big role, both statewide and on the local board, while he was the GMD 3 director from 1984 to 1991. He likens the job of GMD director to being a superintendent of schools.
"Dealing with a 15-man board is not easy," Baker said. "I remember a guy coming into my office, wanting me to go out and check another board member who was letting his water get loose and run down the road ditch. A day later, the other guy tattled on him."
A lot of complaints
He said they worked a "tremendous number" of complaints about water being wasted.
"Some of it got childish," he said.
Winning a seat on the board sometimes involved manipulation at the annual meetings. Early on, there were nominations from the floor, and elections were decided by those in attendance.
One member who owned a lot of land would bring along his tenants.
"He made them show up and vote. That's why we didn't have nominations at the meeting any more. They have to be made one month in advance," Baker said.
Occasionally his views were expressed in print, and some were not well received by irrigators. One of those was a comment to a reporter in the mid 1980s that "the sandhills should never have been developed."
Baker was referring to an area of sandy soil from south of Garden City west to the Colorado state line.
"I made that statement to the reporter and he wrote it in there, word for word, and I caught hell for it," he said. "I would hate to live in Garden City 25 to 30 years from now when we don't have irrigation and those sandhills are bare. We need to put grass back in now."
Tough decisions
When the board required in the late 1980s that all wells in the district be fitted with meters, it was Baker's job to inform the public. There were two meetings in Finney County.
"There were people opposed to it. They said meters would become a vehicle for the state to tax water use."
Finding ways to extend the life of the aquifer is a difficult task, Baker said.
A quick fix involves shutting off wells to achieve "safe yield," he said, which amounts to eliminating nine out of every 10 wells, and isn't realistic.
But something has to be done, he agreed, whether from stiffer regulations or volunteer conservation, such as local enhanced management areas -- LEMAs -- or state-determined intensive groundwater use control areas.
"We need cooperative participation, where people agree to lower the acre feet they're pumping. I see that as a tool," Baker said.
A tool, but not a cure-all.
"I don't see how we can have a real effect on it without law changes," he said.
(c)2014 The Salina Journal (Salina, Kan.)
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