By Tim Unruh
ASSARIA - State officials staged a gathering earlier this month and started a "conversation" to gather opinions about Kansas water.
"We hope this stimulates some thought," said Susan Metzger, chief of planning and policy at the Kansas Water Office in Topeka. She opened the meeting as a member of the Governor's Vision Team for the Future of Water in Kansas.
Of the 22 in attendance - many of them local and state water officials, some irrigators, landowners and interested citizens - offered information and opinions.
Water is key to the state's economic future, Metzger said. Topics bounced from water rights to municipal policies, technology, efficiency and the condition of reservoirs.
Some steered the conversation to irrigation in western Kansas, where the biggest share of water use occurs.
"I think the effort to address the problem would benefit from a little more intellectual honesty," said Duane Schrag , of Abilene.
"It's not a mystery," Schrag said. "Groundwater is being pumped at a rate that exceeds recharge."
Irrigation from the massive Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas produces $5 billion in value each year -- $1.75 billion in corn production and $2 billion in beef production, according to a handout from the state department of agriculture, Kansas Water Office and Kansas Water Authority.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback called for action on water policy in October at his water conference in Manhattan. He wants a clear vision of what should be done to meet the state's current needs and needs for the next 50 years. The governor wants answers by October of this year.
If nothing is done over the next half-century, the handout from the state agencies reads, the aquifer will be 70 percent depleted and roughly 40 percent of the area irrigated by the Ogallala won't support a 400-gallon-per-minute irrigation well.
The water supply in federal reservoirs throughout Kansas will be 40 percent filled by sediment, and five of the seven basins where reservoirs support municipal and industrial water use won't be able to meet demands during a drought.
Regarding irrigated farming, producers and experts talked about converting land from flood irrigation to center pivots with drop nozzles that reduce evaporation. Such a system is 85 percent efficient, while subsurface drip irrigation takes the efficiency to the upper 90s.
But there are costs. Converting to a pivot costs about $800 an acre, while drip systems cost $1,500 an acre, said Blake McLemore, district conservationist in McPherson County.
Upgrading will result in less water use, he said. Roughly 2 to 3 percent of the irrigated land in McPherson County is in drip irrigation.
"For the most part, you need financial incentives to influence them to come through the door," McLemore said.
A number of methods to save water were discussed, among them planting less water-intensive crops, such as milo or cotton, instead of corn and alfalfa, and farming without tilling the soil.
"National farm policy encourages raising corn," said Brad Shogren, a farmer near Lindsborg who raises crops with irrigation.
If wheat fetched more profit, farmers would irrigate wheat, which requires less water.
"We respond to the economic conditions that exist," he said.
One suggestion was that water is too cheap in Kansas. Martha Tasker, Salina's director of utilities, spoke of the city's conservation plan implemented after the Smoky Hill River nearly went dry in 2006. The new guidelines can cause the price for city water to nearly double if it's overused during a dry period.
In the past eight years, peak usage in Salina has been reduced from 13 million gallons a day to 10 million, she said, while the population has grown some.
Talking about watering lawns and reducing city water use is "nibbling at the edges," Schrag said.
Irrigation in western Kansas accounts for the bulk of water use in the state -- about 85 percent, said Mark Rude, executive director of Groundwater Management District No. 3 in Garden City. He did not attend the meeting.
"If municipalities quit using water altogether, we would still be using water in excess of recharge," Schrag said.
Metzger mentioned the voluntary Local Enhanced Management Areas in the High Plains. In Sheridan County, 100 people have pledged to reduce water use by 20 percent. LEMAs are being formed in Sherman County and in Groundwater Management District No. 1, based in Scott City.
Shogren said he likes the "local input" and control being demonstrated out west as closer to home. He is a member of Lower Smoky River Irrigation District, which works closely with the city of Salina and the state to acquire water storage in Kanopolis Reservoir.
To address the sediment problem in reservoirs, Metzger mentioned the stream bank stabilization programs upstream from the reservoirs that "keep siltation out."
The flow into Kanopolis Reservoir was the least ever in 2012. Rainfall in the watershed that supplies the Smoky Hill River at Ellsworth was above normal in 2007, 2008 and 2009 and was normal in 2010, Schrag said.
"Sedimentation probably isn't the real issue. Water is," he said.
The notion of building an aqueduct to divert water from the Missouri River and pump it uphill to western Kansas may sound far-fetched, Shogren said, but "don't criticize anybody for being a visionist."
He compared the idea to building the Panama Canal.
"Those who are pumping out of the Ogallala are mining a finite resource," Shogren said.
The Vision team has met with more than 3,000 people at 50 meetings across the state since last fall, Metzger said, and more meetings are planned. One gathering in Ulysses was attended by 350 people.
-- Reporter Tim Unruh can be reached at 822-1419 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.