WICHITA, 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.