If Kansans continue down the current path, the state's water resources could be nearly spent in 50 years.
Roughly 70 percent of western Kansas' Ogallala Aquifer - the lifeblood of the region's economy - would be depleted by 2064. Moreover, 40 percent of the area being irrigated now wouldn't even be able to support a 400-gallon-a-minute well to pump water to a corn crop.
Also within 50 years, 40 percent of the state's reservoir storage space will be filled with sediment if nothing is done to stop it.
"That's not a pretty picture," Kent Askren, Kansas Farm Bureau's public policy director of water, told farmer members Thursday afternoon in Pratt. "But that is the course we are on. You have to recognize that is the direction we're headed."
"If you want to go a different direction," Askren poignantly asked the group, "what direction might that be?"
That's a question being considered across the state by farmers, irrigators and community leaders gathering to discuss the future of water in Kansas, including Farm Bureau members in Pratt last week.
Last fall, Gov. Sam Brownback unveiled his agenda, saying the state must move forward to preserve its natural resource. He made it clear that the issue is one he wants answered - and soon.
Brownback's administration is being tasked to create a vision for the future of water in Kansas and have it on his desk before November, said Keith Miller, a Barton County farmer and rancher who serves on the Farm Bureau's state board.
A preliminary draft is expected sometime in May, he said. The Kansas Farm Bureau, which is having its own meetings across the state, will meet with Brownback in early May to present a 50-year vision proposal.
"It's not going to be easy," Miller told the group about putting together a solution.
That's especially true when considering how western Kansas is reliant on the finite resource.
Askren said western Kansas' Ogallala Aquifer has spurred an economy that is important to the entire state - one that has flourished since the advent of irrigation in the 1930s and 1940s.
For instance, according to an August 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, 2.8 million acre feet of water is taken out of the western Kansas reservoir annually, irrigating a crop that brings about $1.28 billion to the Kansas economy.
However, Askren said, the area only sees 0.72 acre feet naturally recharged back into the aquifer each year.
There is interest in creating sustainability of the aquifer, but all factors have to come into play, Askren said.
"We have to keep in mind the economy that is there now," he said. "We have to keep in mind the characteristics of the aquifer, and we have to keep in mind what it would take to achieve sustainability.
"We would have to have over 75 percent reduction in the usage that we have right now to meet sustainability. Sustainability comes at tremendous costs, no doubt about it, but running out of water comes at tremendous costs, too. That is the hand we are dealt and what we need to consider when thinking about vision."
Dwindling reservoir storage
Besides groundwater, Kansas reservoirs also are in trouble, Askren said. The reservoirs, some of which were built in the 1940s and 1950s, are filling with sediment, and dredging is costly.
Askren also said five of Kansas' seven major reservoirs won't be able to meet demands during a drought if nothing changes. He added that 66 percent of Kansans rely on reservoirs for their daily needs, whether it is for water or electricity.
One site - John Redmond Reservoir in Coffey County - has lost 30,000 acre feet of storage since it was completed in 1964, according to information Askren provided by the Kansas Water Office. A pilot project is in the works to dredge the lake, which is a backup water supply for Wolf Creek Nuclear Water Plant.
Kanopolis Reservoir has lost about 35 percent of its storage since construction ended more than 60 years ago, according to the water office.
"Every day, every one of these reservoirs fills up a little bit more with sedimentation," Askren said. "This is a real sleeping giant, in my opinion. I think the majority of the people in Kansas, in particular eastern Kansas, don't have a clue how dependent they are on these reservoirs and yet how that ability to satisfy those needs is somewhat slipping away."
Thursday's meeting garnished a handful of solutions that Miller, Askren and other Kansas Farm Bureau leaders will sift through when crafting their version of Kansas' water vision.
It's also more difficult when putting it together with the opinions of farmers from other geographical regions. Askren noted that recharge is better in Pratt County, where the farmers were meeting - part of a groundwater management district that saw a 0.55-foot rise in the water table this year.
But across southwest Kansas, declines continue, with an average drop of 2.30 feet in 2013 and more than 30 feet since 2007, according to the Kansas Geological Survey's latest well measurements.
"We could enforce priority," Askren said of Kansas' first-in-time, first-in-right law, adding it would take shutting off "nine out of every 10 wells to make that happen. Obviously, that would have a negative impact on the economy immediately."
Ideas ranged across the board as members met in small groups to brainstorm ideas. Some thought that adding more voluntary, grassroots measures was needed. Others suggested mandatory, across-the-board cuts to all water-right holders, regardless of their priority right - saying it might be the only way to get some to curtail usage.
And it might mean rewriting state water law, some said.
Barrett Smith, who farms with his family on an irrigated operation in Pratt County, said his family wells rose a bit last year and have stayed sustainable. However, Smith, who is the Kiowa County Agriculture Extension Agent, said some wells in his county are declining.
Smith said he supports conservation efforts as a Kansas State Research and Extension agriculture agent in Kiowa County.
It won't be easy, he said. Some ideas might be "outside the box."
"I think farmers are adaptable creatures," Smith said. "Farmers will do what needs to be done. I have producers that have wells that are dropping off, and we need to do something there, and I have other producers in Kiowa County that have wells that aren't dropping off and are doing just fine."
Smith noted he has 4-H'ers he is looking after, as well as his future children. He and his brother are the fifth generations on the farm.
"As we look at these ideas, we are trying to accomplish something sustainable for all of us, and we will adapt," he said.
"Consensus is, we need to do something, but it will be painful getting to what that something is."