GREENSBURG – Mike O’Brate is like any Kansas farmer – he hopes to someday pass the farm to another generation.
The southwest Kansas irrigator admits, however, that by the time his 4-year-old grandson is old enough to consider taking over the operation, the once rich Ogallala Aquifer underneath his land – which sustains his and other producers’ crops in semiarid western Kansas – won’t be as plentiful.
So, on May 20, he and 13 other basin team leaders from across the state presented their ideas on how to preserve and extend the life of Kansas’ water resources to the Kansas Water Authority.
“In 18 years or 16 years, it will be limited water,” O’Brate said of his own land. “It’s very important if we can push this resource out a few more years – it will help us all out. We’ve already learned to do more with less.”
The effort is all part of a fast-track plan unveiled by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback two years ago. After years of debate about how to solve Kansas’ water woes, Brownback made water his vision after he first took office.
Instead of talk, he wants action. Kansas farmers and others across the state have, for several decades, been consuming groundwater faster than nature can recharge it. If Kansans continue down the current path, the state’s water resources could be nearly spent in 50 years.
So, since Jan. 14, separate stakeholder groups have been meeting across the state – charged with a directive to come up with goals and solutions to solving Kansas’ water woes.
Leaders of the groups met for the authority meeting in Greensburg to give an outline of their plans, along with answer questions and receive direction.
It’s proof that Kansas has come a long way in terms of water discussions, said Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Authority. For starters, there is more political support.
“We have a lot of momentum right now on this,” he said. “We’ve moved the ball quite a ways from a decade, decade-and-a-half ago in terms of water.”
If nothing changes, roughly 70 percent of western Kansas’ Ogallala Aquifer would be depleted by 2064, Brownback has said. Moreover, 40 percent of the area being irrigated now wouldn’t even be able to support a 400-gallon-a-minute well to pump water to a corn crop.
Also within 50 years, 40 percent of the state’s reservoir storage space will be filled with sediment if nothing is done to stop it.
“If we don’t have water, we don’t have a future,” Brownback said at the Governor’s Water Conference in November. “That includes people, economics.”
At the conference, Brownback and his staff unveiled the second draft of a vision plan for the state’s dwindling water supply. The draft included creating basin teams to come up with goals on how to solve water problems in each area.
“This whole process is to get ahead of it so we do have those water resources when we need them,” said Gary Harshberger, chairman of the authority and a Dodge City-area farmer.
“Kansas wants to be a fierce competitor with our neighbors,” he said, adding the goal is to make Kansas a better state and to grow its economy. “Let’s make sure we have the resources – the water – let’s make sure we have the water supply necessary to handle the growth that we want. That is our charge. We have a pretty defined focus.”
A variety of goals came from each area, including western Kansas’ Ogallala region where the vast aquifer varies in depth and usable lifetime. Some areas have 10 to 25 years of irrigation left. Others have more than 100 years left.
For the Upper Republican basin, Gerald Franklin, who farms near Goodland, said the group wants a water reduction plan that can be implemented by January.
The short-term goal is to reduce the rate of depletion of the aquifer within five years to sustain the economy. Long term, he said the region needs to evaluate success every five years and to see if conservation measures are working.
The team also put in place goals for municipal water users.
Meanwhile, the Upper Smoky Hill had similar ideas, with team members suggesting their area implement a water management plan that would reduce overall water usage by Jan. 1, 2017.
Water officials, however, didn’t let the team leaders off easy. Authority members drilled the group with questions. Meanwhile, goals were rated as to whether they were specific, measurable, achievable, result-focused and time-bound – or SMART.
Most groups fell short in some areas of meeting SMART benchmarks.
O’Brate said it wasn’t an easy task coming up with workable goals, noting that there is resistance from some irrigators to cut back.
Some, he admitted, have the attitude of “Everyone else can cut theirs, but leave mine alone. It’s my right to pump the water.”
But there also was a knowledge that something needs to happen.
“Everybody agrees we need to do something – but they want everyone else to do it,” he said.
O’Brate told the authority that his team – the Upper Arkansas Basin – stresses respecting private property rights as well as the implementation of voluntary, incentive-based solutions.
However, while a list of ideas were mentioned – including finding additional sources of water for irrigation and making use of emerging technologies – Harshberger suggested the team, along with other basin teams, come back with more measurable goals and a timeline for them to happen.
O’Brate said he’ll go back to the team and start working on LEMAS – Local Enhanced Management Areas – in an effort to address high-priority areas where the aquifer lifetime is limited.
Not all the issues center on the Ogallala, however.
In the Red Hills region of south-central Kansas, the team wants to reduce the rate of water use by 10 percent by 2025, as well as reduce the amount of freshwater used in oil and gas completion operations by 4 percent annually.
Meanwhile, beginning in 2040 when the technology is more readily available, the group would like to have 10,000 barrels a day of freshwater recycled from the production of oil.
In eastern Kansas, groups addressed how to reduce sedimentation, which is affecting the state’s reservoirs – the source of public water supplies.
All stressed the value of water to their region’s economy.
Richard Wenstrom, an irrigator from Kinsley who chaired the Great Bend Prairie team, said annual crop revenue from irrigation equals about $320 million and the dollars circulating in the economy because of irrigation reach about $1.6 billion.
His group’s ideas included development of a high-yielding feed wheat. He told authority members the variety didn’t need to be bread quality but something that could serve as an alternative feed source for the region – potentially taking the place of water-intensive corn.
The team wants to see livestock trials on a variety to begin as soon as 2025.
Wenstrom said the group also wants to map and monitor salt-water disposal lines that crisscross the region. Concern is that there is little oilfield accountability and that the lines – which in some areas sit just a few feet from the water table – are old and could contaminate the water supply.
Authority President Harshberger said he was pleased with the ideas presented at the mid-May meeting. The authority met again a few weeks later to outline suggestions for the basin teams.
“Whether it is in the east or west, (water) is a big issue,” he said, adding, “I think when you get to the end of today, we have a pretty good feeling what these regional groups have in mind.”
Finalized plans will be presented to Brownback at his water meeting in November.