MANHATTAN – With a Nov. 24, 1988, photo of Kansas State Football Coach Bill Snyder on several large screens, Susan Metzger drew a parallel with the state’s water challenges.

When the photo was taken, Snyder was in the early stages of transforming the Wildcats from a perennial loser to a national college football mainstay. Metzger, an assistant Kansas secretary of agriculture, compared that moment to what the state faces today with water issues, battling over pumping in western Kansas and reservoirs that are silting in.

“We have a chance of the greatest turnaround in Kansas water history,” she said Nov. 14 – the first day of the two-day Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas.

Gov. Sam Brownback launched the vision three years ago, and on this morning, 615 registrants were given a report on the second year of plan implementation. They learned the state was in the early stages of lengthening the life of the Ogallala Aquifer and enhancing the storage capacity of Kansas’ reservoirs.

“I’m really proud of our state for taking hold of this issue and running with it,” said Gary Harshberger, a Dodge City-area farmer and chairman of the Kansas Water Authority.

Brownback pleased

Brownback was not present, but in a videotaped message he expressed excitement “about us moving forward to preserve and extend the Ogallala Aquifer.”

State officials talked up the research going on at “water technology farms” in western Kansas, and the need for state residents to unite to conserve and improve the quality of the resource that’s second only to oxygen in importance.

There was also a sobering speech from Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, on the need to more than double the present funding to $55 million a year while Kansas’ government struggles with revenue shortages.

“If we’re going to meet all those goals that we laid out, it’s going to take additional resources,” he said. “Any time you’re talking taxes and fees, it’s going to be contentious.”

Change the culture

Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey implored the audience to “change the culture of how people see water in Kansas,” and she had some help from speaker Denise Hickey, resource program and public education manager of the North Texas Municipal Water District.

Both stressed the importance of planting the message with youth and letting them take it home to their parents. One challenge is keeping the resource in mind “during times of drought and times of plenty,” Hickey said.

Significant time was spent outlining action in Kansas, such as the dredging of John Redmond Reservoir in eastern Kansas, and research to squeeze the most out of every water droplet. The Kansas Bostwick Irrigation District won praise for converting open ditches to buried lines with money gifted from a court settlement over depleted flows in the Republican River. A partnership between Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska holds promise, McClaskey said.

Included in a 30-minute video were Finney County farmers Dwane Roth and Tom Willis, who discovered encouraging results from new equipment being tested and demonstrated at their operations; among them the “Dragon Line” and the “Bubbler” that are added to center pivot irrigation systems and distribute water under crop canopies, reducing evaporation loss. Soil probes connected to applications on their phones help them manage irrigation.

“That takes the guesswork out of it,” Roth said. “With the efficiencies, you get your money back even with today’s (commodity) prices.”

We’re onto something

More would have been learned in the first year if the growing season hadn’t been so wet, but the farmers aren’t complaining. Willis is eager to see what occurs during a “normal year” of precipitation.

Even with the wet conditions, he said, “We were able to turn off our irrigation equipment earlier than our neighbors. We used less fertilizer and repair bills were less because we didn’t put such deep ruts” from the pivots making extra circles around the fields

“With the moisture probes, we saw deeper root development. You could speed up or slow down (the pivot),” Willis said, based on the varying moisture needs of the crops.

“We’re onto something, but it needs more time,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re talking less money.”

The goal for both farmers was conserving enough in the aquifer so that the the younger members of their families could inherit a viable farm in semi-arid western Kansas.

Willis brought his nephew, Dallin Willis, 24. Looking ahead, the farm will be turned over to him and Tom’s son, Josh, 31.

“This is my future,” Dallin said. “Our ground (12 miles south of Garden City) is so sandy that if you don’t have irrigation, you’re not going to farm it.”

Sheridan Six

A hopeful boost came from the Sheridan Six Local Enhance Management Area that was established in the Hoxie area. Voluntary reductions in pumping produced the only irrigation wells in western Kansas that did not see a decline in water level during 2015, said Lane Letourneau, program manager for the state agriculture department. By comparison, a number of wells in southern Finney County and in Stevens County in extreme southwest Kansas, have seen declines of 10 feet or more. Water officials also promoted the development of Water Conservation Areas as a way for local users to reduce the decline.

A number of Kansas lawmakers were present at the conference and were encouraged by the effort.

“I’m hopeful we’re gonna find a way to extends the life of (the Ogallala),” said Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton. “I’m encouraged for the Sheridan Six, but I think the die is cast.”

If the decline continues, he predicted the remaining water resources could be “preserved for value-added uses.”

“The science is out there,” said Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, who retired this year after 12 years in the Kansas Senate. Before that stint, he spent four years in the House.

“We have to hope that somebody looks into the next generations,” Ostmeyer said. “It’s gonna be hard to extend the aquifer, but I think there’s interest out there.”

The conference is a good place to share ideas, said Rep John Doll, R-Garden City, who was elected to the Senate Nov. 8.

“Water and education and the economy are the state’s three major issues,” Doll said. “I wish more (legislators) were here. Without Sedgwick and Johnson counties, we can’t pass anything until they get on board.”

Tim Unruh is a veteran agricultural journalist with the Salina Journal. He grew up on a diversified farm near Deerfield, the son of a grain elevator manager and a schoolteacher. Email: tunruh@salina.com.