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Water Shortages, the High Plains Aquifer, and the Governor's Summit

By Diane Wahto
Analysis | December 10, 2011

ogallala-acuifer.gifWICHITA, Kan. - At the height of the 2011 Kansas drought that lasted through spring, summer, and into the fall, Gov. Sam Brownback called a summit of "stakeholders," for a discussion on the future of the Ogallala Aquifer.

The Governor's Summit

The four hundred attendees who gathered in Colby, Kansas, included, among others, representatives from the Kansas Geological Survey, Kansas State University, Kansas Ag bankers, and the Kansas Farm Bureau, as well as Carolyn Armstrong, Colby City Manager and Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, representing the League of Kansas Municipalities.

A hydro-geologist from the Kansas Geological Survey, Dr. Geoffrey Bohling, said of the meeting, "A common statement at the summit was, 'I don't like big government [or government regulation], but we need to regulate use of the aquifer.' This was coming from the stakeholders: irrigators (farmers and ranchers) and people responsible for municipal water supplies. Attached to that was the idea that people would prefer more of a grassroots approach to regulation -- for example, all irrigators in an area cutting back their use by a certain percentage voluntarily."

The Ogallala Aquifer is part of the High Plains Aquifer and is, according to the Kansas Geological Survey, "the most important water source for much of western and central Kansas."

"Aquifers are underground deposits containing permeable rock or sediments (silts, sands, and gravels) from which water can be pumped in usable quantities. The High Plains aquifer is a regional aquifer system composed of several smaller units that are geologically similar and hydrologically connected -- that is, water can move from one aquifer to the other. The High Plains aquifer system lies beneath parts of eight states in the Great Plains, including about 30,500 square miles of western and central Kansas."

The High Plains Aquifer is not a large underground lake. Rather, it is composed of sediments and rock debris that "washed off the face of the Rocky Mountains and other more local sources over the past several million years."

The Desert of Western Kansas

The white explorers who first viewed Western Kansas after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase called the region a desert. President Thomas Jefferson "wrote of the 'immense and trackless deserts' of the region." Zebulon Pike, of Pike's Peak fame, said, "These vast plains of the western hemisphere, may become in time equally celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa." He noted on his map that there was "not a stick of timber" in the region.

Others who traveled through what is now Western Kansas saw a dry, treeless land, but they also saw great herds of buffalo and other wildlife throughout the vast area. However, settler headed west still saw the region as uninhabitable and unable to sustain agriculture because of the lack of water. Then came irrigation and the barbed wire fence, two developments that opened what once was considered to be desert to farming and ranching. (Wikipedia, "The Great American Desert")

According to From Desert to Breadbasket: Developing Kansas's Land Resources, a document put out by the Kansas State University Agricultural Experimental Station, "A hundred years ago, about a hundred years after the American Revolution, a revolution of a different type was taking place on the Kansas plains. The American bison has all but disappeared, Turkey red wheat was making its debut on Kansas soil, and settlers were determined to disprove the concept of the plains as a desertlike grassland "unfit for human habitation." Gradually they did, coping with an unfamiliar environment by developing a new type of agriculture and eventually transforming the Kansas prairies into 'the breadbasket of the world.'"

Modern-Day Western Kansas

Nowadays people traveling through western Kansas will see huge feed lots filled with cattle and great fields of alfalfa, soybeans, sunflowers, corn and wheat. They also will see the "center-pivot irrigation systems--large sprinklers that roll across the land on wheels that allowed people to irrigate uneven terrain, thus opening large new areas for irrigation," irrigation that makes possible not just the growth of new crops, but also the sustaining of larger feed lots and packing plants. (The High Plains Aquifer)

While these technological developments have improved the economy of western Kansas, the dependence on ground water for irrigation has led to a decline in the High Plains Aquifer, which includes the Ogallala Aquifer. According to the Kansas Geological Survey Public Information Circular 18, The High Plains Aquifer, the High Plains Aquifer "is the most important water source for much of western and central Kansas, supplying 70% of the water used by Kansans each day."

A study conducted in 2011 by researchers Dr. Bohling and Dr. Brownie Wilson of the Kansas Geological Survey, Statistical and Geostatistical Analysis of the Kansas High Plains Water-Table Elevations: 2011 Measure Campaign, shows that, "Overall from 2010 to 2011, groundwater elevations declined across most of the core aquifer areas of the High Plains region of Kansas. The declines were the greatest in traditional high pumping areas, especially in southwest Kansas. Similar decline areas were present over the 2006 to 2011 time period. The added stress of continued drought conditions likely served to accentuate the pumping stress on the aquifer as the southwest region of Kansas showed the third highest rate of decline in that area since the State assumed administration of the water-level program in 1996."

Outcomes of the Summit

These declines led to the Colby summit, which in turn led to Gov. Brownback, working with officials of the Kansas Water Office, developing new guidelines for water use in western Kansas. According to an article in the El Dorado Times, "Governor Unveils Water Proposals, "The plans include ditching a use-it-or-lose-it policy that requires water rights holders, such as farmer and ranchers, to pump a certain amount of water each year or forfeit their rights. The policy dates to the 1940s when some of the state's first water rules were implemented.

"Other policies would enable groundwater management districts to implement plans for reducing water usage to help sustain the aquifer, allow for the development of additional water storage and amend the multi-year flex accounts program that would give irrigators expanded capabilities to manage their crops over a five-year period."*

Also quoted in the El Dorado Times article, "Joe Spease, legislative director for the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, said while the proposals will help extend the life of the aquifer and encourage conservation, he is troubled by the administration's support for energy development that could threaten water quality.

Spease said the use of large volumes of water for a proposed new coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas and increased use of hydrologic fracturing of rock for energy exploration appeared to be contradictory to the goals of conservation ... [T]he potential harm caused by chemicals used in the energy production could render the water in western Kansas useless for farming and ranching, harming a key component of the state's economy."*

Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, said of the governor's July summit and the ensuing water use policy changes, "The charge was to remove any disincentives to conservation. These were the ones that were brought to the forefront."

Those who depend on the Ogallala Aquifer for water, and that includes all Kansans, will find the positive changes coming from the summit a good use of government entities taking charge of a situation to improve the lives of citizens. This attention to the water supply is long overdue, but welcome.


Diane, you're a brave girl! Tackling this topic and issue is challenging all political ideas of what the role of individuals, local residents, state governments and even federal government should play.

I served 6 years (2 terms) on the original Board of Directors of the NW Kansas Water Management District #4. We were pioneers in limiting appropriations and well spacing. We had two big challenges: Dealing with bureaucrats who had very little concept of how the aquifer functioned and how to best utilize the tremendous resource and dealing with individuals whose only concern was their immediate profit potential the, then percieved unlimited, resource provided. It was a continuous battle between 'state authority', 'local board authority' and individual rights and authority.

That was 36 years ago, and the battle still rages. Government appointed bureaucracy tends to listen to popular opinion, whether that opinion has any real knowledge or stake in the game. After all these years, I believe that the local groundwater management districts have done a reasonably fair and equitable job of establishing rules and regulations. Those rules and regulations are sometimes limited by State laws that the local boards must adhere to. The State retains the authority to issue water appropriation rights and they have grossly over appropriated the resource. Those water rights are real property rights, just like any other personal property. The issue and problem is how do we reduce or restrict water rights and usage back to sustainable levels. How do we put monetary values on that water? Who pays whom and should it be based on first in rights or across the board reductions? Should we just let simple economics solve the problem. When depletion reaches a certain level it will no longer be profitable to pump in quantities to maintain all the acres under irrigation. Contrary to some dire predictions, there will still be enough water to meet domestic human needs for the population required to support ‘dryland’ farming in the area. Dryland farming will not produce enough to sustain the dairy and cattle feeding operations in the area. Dryland farming will not sustain the implement dealers and agricultural services, we now have. Schools, health care services, local businesses will begin to disappear. Western Kansas will certainly become much more sparsely populated and people will then be moved to the cities, where jobs are already lacking. Recreational and tourist attractions will not sustain the area.

Yes, we are facing some very serious questions of how to correct the depletion of our natural resources. The Ogalalah Aquifer is not the only natural resource that is in jeopardy in our United States. The Sierra Club is not popular with many locals, but they are justifiably concerned about the environment and man’s responsibility for future generations. Neither the Democrats, Republicans, nor the Libertarians have a workable plan to solve the problems.

Ken--Thanks for your knowledgable feedback. I hope people who live in western Kansas will respond to what I've written. I think it's difficult for people to realize that every time they turn on the tap at the kitchen sink, that water is coming from somewhere and when the source is depleted, that's it.

Thank you, Diane for a unusually thorough and thoughtful article on this topic. And thank you, Ken, for an honest appraisal of where things are and where they have been. I grew up in western Kansas on one of those dryland farms and then my father began irrigating in the 1960s. You may be interested in reading my New York Times article on this topic: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/01/opinion/polluting-the-ogallala-aquifer.html My essential argument is that federal farm and ethanol policy should not underwrite the waste and pollution of this virtually nonrenewable resource by subsidizing irrigated corn.

Julene, I have read your op ed column in the NY Times. It is a good article and points out some important issues regarding natural resource protection from polution.

However, you say the Keystone pipe line is not a significant threat. Oh! yes it is. A 36 inch pipeline, under pressure, can dump a huge amout of polutants in a very short span of time. It is concentrated in a very small area. It can have very immediate effect on shallow wells. And once the contaminate reaches a level below economic recovery, it will, eventually, leach out and contaminate the deeper levels of the Ogallala aquifer. Yes, production agriculture is guilty of over application of chemicals and fertilizer. Those issues have been addressed by economics and government regulations. Too late in some instances, but, nevertheless, they have been addressed.

Biocarbons released by fossill fuel burning (automobiles, power plants, etc. are significant sources of both surface and groundwater polution. Landfills and large confined livestock operations are also significant contributors to the problem.

Economic Development committees and Corporate entities, quite often, have little regard for environmental pressures. Profit and growth are immediate goals, at the expense of long term environmental and social responsibilities.

As to politicians being beholden to the agricultural votes: Even in Western Kansas the % of the electorate directly involved in production agriculture is quite small. Economic interests of those in service related and retail businesses are guilty of promoting unfettered growth and practices, that put money in their pockets. The owners and operators of the mining operations in South East Kansas didn't live there and had little concern over what they were doing to the environment. Profit was all important and laying waste to the landscape and contamination was the least of their concerns.

The CEOs and major stockholders of our corporations that dominate the manufacturing and business enterprises have limitted concerns about the environment and social problems in the immediate vicinity of their operations. Profit is their number 1 concern.

All members of the original Water Management Board, that I served with, were active irrigators. We adopted restrictions and regulations that hampered or limitted our own operations, because we could see the long range picture of what unlimitted expansion would be. Maybe they weren't restrctive enough, but we pushed as hard as State law and local support allowed us to push. And most of the succesor directors have been equally responsible for their programs that effect the social welfare of our local residents as well as the State and National welfare.

I firmly believe in local and State control. But those controls must be within the guidlines of our National Constitution that protects the rights and freedoms of all residents, regardless of their race, ethnic origin, economic status, gender, or religious affiliation.

Diane, thanks for some background on an important, nay, a critical issue. I began to respond in the comment section, but after trying to bite my tongue (writing wise)I decided to post a follow-up blog sharing some of my own experiences. I won't be so kind as our friend Ken in speaking about the lunacy of over-appropriation and the pious rhetoric over some fifty years by those who could, and should have, done more to bring real stewardship--and are doing nothing too significant today. They will not like what I have to say, and judging from my experience, what I have to say won't make a hell of a lot of difference.

When I was a resident of Sedgwick and Sumner counties, the Equus Beds were a very significant contributor to the Wichita water supply. That was back in the 1950s, but I'm sure that it is still a part of the supply, today. I farmed in Sumner county and 1956 was the driest year on record, up to that time. That drought was being reflected in the water levels of the Equus Beds and the surface lakes in the region. The lower the water levels were becoming the more serious the polution issues were becoming.

That water resource is a relatively shallow aquifer that is very vulnerable to drought and surface sources of polution. The battle was over who had rights to that resource, who should determine distribution and regulation of its use, and who had authority to enforce those regulations.

Today, as the Ogallala water table declines, the contamination issue becomes more critical. A few years of above rainfall will not refill that aquifer. Obviously, refilling the aquifer would dilute the contamination, but that is not a reasonable expectation. It has taken fifty years of over use to reach the depletion level, we now have, and it would take as many or more years to restore water levels to their original state. That is without any withdrawwal taking place. We have limited natural shallow storage areas above the aquifer. We can't construct dams on the natural drainage creeks and rivers, because that deprives downstream areas of their natural sources of water. That's part of the big legal battle between Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas. Surface lakes, whether natural or constructed, and shallow aquifers are cyclically recharged, sometimes annually, by rainfall or snow melt.

Do we have a serious problem? We sure do! Do I trust politicians and bureaurracy to solve those problems? No I don't, especially Brownback and his ideological cohorts.

I just read Bob's comment and look forward to his blogg on the issue. For any of you who think Bob and I are in bed with each other on all the political and economic issues, think again. He and I have discussed this issue before and while we both know it is a serious problem, we don't agree, entirely, on the solution to the problem.

The fact that I was operator of a larger than average irrigated acreage during the '70s, '80s, and '90s and that i was also involved in district management of the resource, may have some influence on our differences. I'm still an active farmer and irrigator, but at a much smaller scale. Actually, in today's environment and economy, I'm, realistically, just a hobby farmer. I have first hand experience and knowlege of the value of water and the problems of trying to correct past negligence and mistakes in appropriation and management. I know that most irrigators are very conscientious about conserving the resource and the economic benefits to ourselves, as well as the local and regional area.

Thanks to those of you who have first-hand experience with this issue and are willing to comment on it. Bob--I too look forward to your blog. Julene--Your NY Times article is helpful in my understanding of the situation, as are your comments, Ken.

You may have noticed I deleted a few sections of the blog from the original. I didn't make it clear to my source, who is also my son, that I would be quoting some of the information he sent only as background material. I knew that the KFP readers would be way more knowledgable about this issue than I was and would be glad to chime in. It's more important to me to stay on good terms with my son than to get a good quote.

My major point in the blog was that the governor's summit resulted in more government regulations of water use at the request of those attending the summit. As has been pointed out, those regulations may not be enough to stem the pollution and overuse of the Ogallala Aquifer, but at least people recognize the need for regulation at this point.

Thanks again. I look forward to more discussion on this issue. No one is immune from the effects of a polluted, diminishing water supply.

Diane, I’m disappointed that so few people are interested enough to join the discussion on water. Is it because they are not aware of the scarcity of potable water, not just in Kansas but world wide? Is it because they don’t care? Is it because they are afraid to engage in an issue that has been defined as too politically hot to deal with? Only 2 people besides you, Bob and I have entered the arena. Are they afraid one of us will be offended if it appears they favor someones opinions or solutions? If so, I can assure you and them that Ol’ Bob and me are tough old birds that can take a little buckshot in the rear and keep right on flying. We are friends, (I think) even though we disagree on some issues, we agree on more issues than we disagree.

What makes the issue too hot politically to deal with? It is individual rights vs. social responsibilities; local control vs. State; State control vs. Federal; economic vs. environment. It even gets over into religion. Remember? One comment questioned Christian ethics of individuals. The only realy controversial issues that haven't been introduced in the ongoing (several years now) battle is gender and sexual orientation.

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