Gov. Sam Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer visited Garden City on Tuesday to emphasize to southwest Kansans that there is hope for the Ogallala Aquifer to reach a healthy, sustainable water level.

Brownback spoke at a building owned by the Garden City branch of American Implement, where he explained that results from the Kansas Geological Survey have shown that the aquifer is replenishing itself faster than previously thought. He said that with a water reduction of approximately 28 percent in the proposed Kearny-Finney Local Enhanced Management Area (LEMA) west and northwest of Garden City, about two-thirds of the aquifer can be restored and preserved.

Through 600 meetings with irrigators, producers and others involved in agricultural water consumption, Brownback said he was able to establish the 50-Year Water Vision program intended to safeguard water resources in Kansas.

“The call for a 50-Year Water Vision has been met in this state with great enthusiasm and a lot of action,” he said. “It spurred debate and discussion. It has resulted in Kansans coming together and discussing how to make changes, how to make a lasting impact and how to secure this precious resource of water for future generations.”

Earlier in the day, Brownback and other activists for water conservation visited with water right owners and local leaders in Hoxie. Brownback reported to residents of southwest Kansas in Garden City that agricultural water consumers in the Hoxie area were able to reduce their average water usage by 35 percent, while aiming for a reduction of 15 to 20 percent.

Brownback said that feat was accomplished through the use of soil moisture probes, conservative irrigation habits and new available technologies.

“It was basically not watering when they didn’t need to water, and their yields were keeping comparable to what they were at,” he said. “They’re close to being in a long-term sustainable situation.”

KGS Senior Scientist and Geohydrology Section Chief Jim Butler said Kansans involved in agriculture have one option if they want to keep their industry afloat: reduce pumping.

Focusing on the LEMA area west and northwest of Garden City, Butler said 24 monitoring wells take water level measurements every year to calculate annual changes. He noted that from 2005 to 2015, 115,000 acre-feet were pumped annually, adding that the annual average water level change in the area was just more than 3.4 feet, or 41 inches of aquifer lost every year.

“This is not a sustainable situation,” Butler said.

Using the same data, Butler explained that if farmers in the area had pumped 28 percent less water from 2005 to 2015, the average water level change would be 0 percent.

“You’ve got basically a depression in the water table here, so you’ve got a lot of water flowing in from the sides, and that inflow supports up to 83,000 acre-feet a year,” he said. “In this area, I think there is a lot of potential to achieve stable water levels over the next few decades.”

Tom Willis is a Finney County farmer who manages two ethanol plants and says he purchases 60 million bushels of locally produced grain a year, a consumption amount that can only be perpetuated on the local level by a sustainable regional water source.

“The difference between us being able to return a big dividend check to our investors and not being able to return anything is whether we have to buy our grain locally, or whether we have to import it out of Nebraska and South Dakota and Iowa,” Willis said, adding that local grain generates a difference of $30 million to $40 million in his dividends.

Willis said he, too, has reduced his water usage while maintaining similar revenues by using options such as moisture probes and dragon-line drip irrigation systems. He explained that his three biggest wells pump 100 to 125 gallons less water per minute on an annual basis than they did last year, with the same overall results in crop saturation.

“We still have more work to do,” he said. “I still have a lot more to learn, but the technology is out there to extend it if you’re willing to try it.”

During the opening comments, Dwane Roth, owner of the Big D Water Technology Farm near Holcomb, applauded Brownback for his leadership on regional water initiatives.

“We’ve taken a lot from his leadership at the Water Authority and the Water Office about focusing our attention on our water supply and how it’s going to fit and change throughout the state, especially out west here in the Ogallala,” Roth said.

The Kansas Water Vision has emphasized implementation of a host of options, including LEMAs, Water Conservation Areas (WCA) and Water Technology Farms.

The 200-square-mile Finney-Kearny LEMA proposal developed by leaders in Finney and Kearny counties would implement a 15-percent reduction in water use, which could double the life of the Ogallala Aquifer in the area. Data from the KGS has shown that a reduction in pumping imposed by the LEMA would not just impact the aquifer’s rate of decline but slow the rate of increasing groundwater salinity.

Troy Dumler, manager of the Garden City Company, said a 15-percent reduction in the area’s water use also could save approximately $1,350 per pivot in energy costs.

There is currently one active LEMA in Kansas, the Sheridan-6 LEMA in Groundwater Management District No. 4. Another district-wide LEMA has been proposed by GMD No. 4 and is now in the public comment phase, with plans for implementation early next year.

WCAs give more lenience in allowing any water right owner or group of owners the opportunity to develop a management plan that would reduce water withdrawals and extend the aquifer’s lifespan. Participation in a WCA can give greater flexibility unavailable to other water right owners. Kansas currently has six active WCAs. Several more are in the process of being approved.

Water Technology Farms were created to allow the installation and research of burgeoning irrigation technologies on a field scale. Southwest and south-central Kansas saw the launch of the state’s first three Water Technology Farms — two in Finney County and one in Edwards County. An additional 10 farms are planned throughout western Kansas in 2017.

“The data reveals that the voluntary efforts happening as a part of the 50-Year Water Vision are being rewarded,” Brownback said. “The Ogallala is replenishing itself faster than we previously knew. What was never thought possible is now within our grasp. Sustainable use of the Ogallala aquifer is attainable.”