Is it possible there is anybody in Kansas unaware of the Ogallala Aquifer's precarious decline? That in any given year, up to 4 feet drops in the nation's largest source of underground fresh water overwhelm the less than one-half inch of natural recharge? Or that irrigators, following the guidance of state and federal policy decisions, are responsible for more than 90 percent of the entire state's usage?
Anything is possible, we suppose, in an age of distraction and apathy. That is the sad reality facing those who care not simply about good stewardship of natural resources -- but the sustainability of High Plains communities in the future.
City dwellers and the willfully ignorant should not be forgiven for a lack of concern, but any resident of western Kansas who doesn't comprehend the severity of the situation needs to wake up. And any irrigator deliberately overpumping their allocated amount of water deserves the utmost punishment allowable by law.
An investigative story produced by the Hutchinson News reveals the state is attempting to curb such violations, and there are many. An examination of documents from the Kansas Department of Agriculture's Division of Water Resources identified 114 water-right holders were penalized for overpumping in 2013.
It is bad enough the state of Kansas over-allocated rights to irrigators as far back as the 1940s when technology allowed drills to reach the water trapped deep beneath the earth's surface millions of years ago. Agriculture policies designed to boost the economy encouraged crops such as corn to be planted on land more properly suited for wheat and sagebrush. State law that transferred a common resource into private property incentivized irrigators to use or lose their maximum allotments.
After much deliberation last year, the DWR formulated stiffer penalties for those who use more than they should. First-time offenders receive a warning. A second violation results in a $1,000 fine and a reduction of their water rights for a year that is twice the amount overpumpted. The third time can cost the irrigator up to a $10,000 fine and suspension of water use for a year. The fourth can result in permanent revocation of the water right.
While there likely are some instances in which honest mistakes were made, there were multiple examples in the 114 of purposeful tampering with meters and falsification of reports. Nobody has had their water rights permanently retired, but there were plenty of second- and third-time offenders.
These people should know best the vulnerable situation facing all residents of this semi-arid region. Placing their individual pursuit of profits higher than the common good violates the social contract to which all should adhere. We encourage state and local officials to continue close monitoring and even expand their efforts.
Complain about government over-regulation and over-reach all you want, but it is apparent self-control and responsible stewardship does not automatically go hand-in-hand with owning a water right. The majority seems to be following the rules, but we need 100-percent compliance. Our lives depend on it.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry