When Greeley County farmer Danny Peter sold his land to Seaboard Farms in 2010, he did so because there wasn't enough water left to irrigate his crops.
Peter told the Kansas Health Institute News Service the Ogallala Aquifer below him simply didn't provide enough to sustain his wheat and milo plantings.
Seaboard -- the food, transportation and energy conglomerate headquartered in Shawnee Mission -- didn't let water worries alter its plans to build the largest corporate hog farm in the state of Kansas. Nor is it bothered with even worse water conditions now, as it plans to expand the 132,000-hog facility to one that will hold as many as 396,000 swine.
The state doesn't appear too worried either. Even though the Kansas Department of Health and Environment had to give Seaboard a variance from its original permit last year as the company proved unable to maintain enough water in its anaerobic sewage lagoons, this March KDHE granted permits for the expansion.
"They (KDHE officials) say, 'Well, they don't have enough water, so we're going to grant them a variance' and then they turn right around and allow them to increase the size of this facility by 50 percent," Craig Volland, agriculture chairman of the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club, told KHI News Service. "That just does not compute."
We would have to agree wholeheartedly. Water levels in the aquifer are dropping 2, 3 and 4 feet a year now. The natural recharge rate of this underground water source is less than one-half inch per year. That is not a sustainable situation. Kansas State University researchers predict current water usage will deplete 70 percent of the Ogallala within 50 years.
The extended drought is now in perhaps its 14th year. Just this week, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback updated the drought declaration, which has all 105 counties either in an emergency, warning or watch status. In a drought emergency status, the most serious, is most of western Kansas -- including Greeley County.
One farmer near Seaboard's Ladder Creek facility told KHI there is but five years of groundwater left at his home. Several other families in the area have moved into town because their wells cost too much to run.
What will tripling the size of this hog farm mean for water supplies? We would expect sanitary conditions to further deteriorate, but that is minor compared to the increased demand on the aquifer.
It all is perfectly legal, as Seaboard owns the water rights. But at what point do the business interests of an absentee owner get balanced with residents who are running out of water?
No time soon, if one is looking to the governor or the Kansas Legislature for answers. One piece of legislation that did not make it out of committee this session, but likely will return next year, is the Kansas Agricultural Growth and Rural Investment Initiative. It would relax all the restrictions and laws regarding corporate farms, including whether local governmental units have anything to say about large swine operations locating in their county. Former Agriculture Secretary Dale Rodman said if the bill was passed, it would "send a loud and clear message that Kansas is open for business."
We remain sensitive to the vital role agriculture plays in the state, generating almost 20 percent of our Gross Domestic Product. But it does not make sense to allow corporate interests and large-scale irrigators to drain the aquifer, rendering significant portions of the state uninhabitable.
The water that sustains us belongs to all citizens of Kansas. Corporations and individuals might have the right to use that water, but not at the expense of our existence. As government has granted these water rights, government should be able to take them away. Seaboard's permits need to be rescinded for the common good.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry