Kansas Works to Preserve Ogallala Aquifer, Other Water Resources

Water, a simple chemical compound, has the big and at times complex job of bringing life to the world. Last October, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback issued a call to action to address the need for a 50-year vision for the state’s water that meets the needs of all Kansans now and in the future.

“The governor understands that water and the economy of Kansas are directly linked,” said Lane Letourneau, Water Appropriations Program manager for the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA). “(The governor) has given KDA and the Kansas Water Office the directive to put together a 50-year vision for our water. He told us to focus on the reservoirs in the eastern part of the state and the Ogallala Aquifer in the western part of the state.”

Letourneau was a speaker at the recent Women Managing the Farm Conference, hosted in Manhattan and co-sponsored by K-State Research and Extension. He provided an update on the status of the 50-year water vision, water rights and the tools available to help with water conservation.

KDA and the Kansas Water Office have hosted 60 to 70 local meetings about water to-date and have met with more than 3,000 people, Letourneau said. The leaders working on the vision are asking local citizens from various parts of the state what they want their water resource to look like in 50 years.

“The best solutions come from the locals,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of positive feedback from the people we’re meeting with, those from the ethanol industry, cities and irrigators. Right now, we’re just at the stakeholder meeting part, but we have many more meetings to do. After that, we’ll put together a plan, and we’ll have more public meetings to deliver the message and get more input.”

Letourneau said the completed vision would take into account all uses for water in the state, including municipal, industrial, agricultural and domestic.

“If we don’t do anything and keep the status quo, the Ogallala will be 70 percent depleted in 50 years, and then the reservoirs will be filled with silt another 40 percent,” he said.

The Ogallala Aquifer

Research at Kansas State, led by David Steward, professor of civil engineering, found that if current usage of the aquifer continues, as much as 69 percent of the aquifer would be depleted by the year 2060. Usage is exceeding the recharge of the aquifer, which has led to its depletion.

The Ogallala, Letourneau said, encompasses about the western one-third of Kansas. It stretches north to south, but there is variability in the levels and availability of water at different places of the aquifer.

“We’re mining the Ogallala, and it has very little recharge,” he said. “At the very southern edge of Kansas, there’s probably about 100 years of water left. In the northwest part of the state, we’ve got areas of 25 years to 50 years left. In the central part of the Ogallala, around Scott City, they’re significantly dewatered, and a lot of their wells already run less than 400 gallons per minute. As you move closer to Garden City, they are running out of water also. We’re seeing big declines in those rates.”

The Ogallala, Letourneau said, is used for many purposes. He estimates about 90 percent of the water is used for irrigation and agricultural purposes in Kansas, while the other 10 percent is used for domestic, municipal, stockwatering and industrial purposes.

Although the agricultural industry uses a majority of the water, corn production in Kansas accounts for about $1.75 billion, and beef production another $2 billion each year, Letourneau said, so agriculture is an important economic driver for the state.

Of the 105 total counties in Kansas, the top eight counties for market value of agricultural products sold border one another. All are located in western Kansas and overlay the Ogallala Aquifer. The counties–Scott, Haskell, Finney, Gray, Grant, Ford, Wichita and Seward–together sold more than $4.7 billion in crops and livestock, according to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Tools available to help

Water rights are real property rights attached to the land upon which the water is used, Letourneau said. In Kansas, you must have a water right permit to use water for any beneficial use, such as for irrigation or any municipal or industrial use.

“We have about 31,000 water rights in Kansas,” Letourneau said. “There are attributes of those water rights. You must have your rate quantity, place of use, point of diversion, use made of the water and the priority date. All of those attributes can be changed except for the priority date.”

Kansas has a strict water rights administration, he said, which is “first in time, first in right.” If the pumping of water between water rights impairs one another, the senior right can curtail the pumping on the junior right, which can create a harsh environment in battling for water.

Cities are paying attention, Letourneau said, as many of them have purchased an irrigation water right when one becomes available for sale. The cities will leave it until they need it, so some water conservation has happened just by not using the right.

“State statutes allow a city to change that irrigation right to a municipal right,” Letourneau said. “Industries, dairies and feedlots are all doing the same thing. So, they’re taking that irrigation water and moving it to another use.”

Local Enhanced Management Areas, or LEMAs, are public-driven and allow irrigators and other water users in Kansas’ groundwater management districts to establish their own groundwater conservation policies. LEMAs were made possible by a bill passed in the Kansas Legislature in 2012.

Letourneau said if locals want to get together to implement water management on their own, they could put together their own corrective controls through a LEMA, and go to using 5-year allocations or agreeing to a 20 percent reduction, for example.

“We do have a LEMA in northwest Kansas, (the Sheridan 6 LEMA) near Hoxie,” he said. “Those individuals there decided to take a 20 percent reduction in actual water use over five years. That 20 percent reduction added 25 years of life to the aquifer.”

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