s we can all feel, it is summer time. And with the heat of summer comes an increased need for water. It is important for people to stay hydrated during the hot months of summer. While some animals, such as the desert tortoise, can go an entire year without taking a drink, we can barely go four days without a drink of water. Of course, animals aren't the only things that need water. Plants need water, as well. In fact, water is the second most necessary substance needed to sustain life, just behind oxygen.

Water makes up the basis of all ecosystems. You can predict and define ecosystems based upon the precipitation they receive. With a lot of water, ecosystems are able to support large plant growth, such as trees, and you end up with rainforests. When water is scarce, the system is a desert and can only support smaller plants adapted for the harsh, dry environment. In Finney County, we live in a combination of shortgrass prairie and sandsage prairie. We average around 20 inches of rainfall each year, normally. As many southwest Kansans know, at this time we are in a drought.

Because we are in a drought, we need to water plants more to keep them alive. One look at the Arkansas River confirms that we don't simply take our water from a surface source. We have to dig wells and tap into the Ogallala Aquifer. Because this source is out of sight, it is easy to lose track of exactly how much it has dropped in recent years. Since the 1970s, the average well has been extended more than 70 feet deeper, or about two feet a year. Worst case scenarios suggest that the aquifer could be drained dry in 25 years.

Normally, the aquifer is recharged through natural methods known as wetlands. Agriculture and urban developments have eliminated many wetlands, thereby slowing the aquifer's recharge rate. Many of these wetlands were removed without anyone realizing they were there. These inconspicuous wetlands are called playas. Playas are seasonal and intermittent. Filling up during the wet season, the playa then slowly trickles the water back down into the aquifer. Oftentimes a playa is only seen as a small dip or circular depression in the landscape. When a playa is filled in or leveled out, the water no longer percolates down to the aquifer. Then, instead of recharging the aquifer, the water simply evaporates or is taken up by plants. Playas are a big reason Conservation Reserve Program exists in our region. CRP's give landowners incentive to allow natural playas to flourish. Programs like these don't just exist to protect the wildlife, but the very water we use to drink and to grow our food.

Together we all can help preserve our water for the future. From home, you can have great effects by making some small changes. Any guess as to what the most watered crop in the United States is? Grass. Our lawns are the primary use of household water. Reducing water use on our lawn could save each of us thousands of gallons each week.

To reduce wasting water, follow these steps:

1) Water at night or early morning. When you water in the middle of the day, most of the water is lost to evaporation.

2) Plant grasses that are native or drought resistant. Native grasses are adapted for our climate, are drought resistant and need less water.

3) Only water when you need to. For example, don't water on days that it rains, although in our drought that doesn't limit us too often.

4) Collect rain water when it does rain. Much of our rain water goes down the drain. Connecting your gutters to rain barrels will allow you to use the rain on other days, as well.

5) Be observant. Don't water the sidewalk, it doesn't really need it. Also, look for run off. If you have run off due to a slope or soil that is more clay-like, slow down your sprinkler to give the water time to soak in.

6) Fix leaks. Most leaks can be cheaply fixed, and will save money.

7) Water deep and less often to encourage roots to go deeper into the ground.

Come to Lee Richardson Zoo and learn more about our water systems at the Kansas Waters exhibit, where you can watch the otters at play. Then you can observe a wetland right here at our zoo. Over a few years, an artificial wetland was developed to clear the waters of Lee Richardson Zoo's duck pond. By mimicking the natural wetland systems where plants and rocks filter the water, the pond water is cleaner, clearer, and we have eliminated algae blooms during the heat of the summer.