Before Kansas became an agricultural hub on the High Plains, it was a territory viewed skeptically by the first European explorers.

In addressing the audience of more than 100 attendees gathered Monday for the Ogallala Aquifer Summit at the Clarion Inn and Conference Center, Robert Mace, a professor at Texas State University and chief water policy officer at The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, referenced Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his impressions of Kansas.

Coronado led a large expedition into Kansas from Mexico in 1541 and described the terrain as a place with “no more landmarks than if we had been swallowed up in the sea, where they strayed about, because there was not a stone, nor a bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”

But a state European pioneers once considered a desolate ocean of yawning, featureless expanse is now home to a segment of the largest swath of irrigation-sustained cropland in the world, Mace said. 

But it’s not just Kansas. The High Plains territory also consists of states like Nebraska and South Dakota, whose agricultural prowess is sustained not by heavy rains but by a great subterranean aquifer that spans parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The 174,000 square miles of aquifer vary in water table levels, and some areas are significantly depleted or have been totally drained by irrigation efforts in states such as New Mexico.

As farmers fight to stop that depletion from continuing and bankrupting the region in many ways, producers, water experts, agriculturists and stakeholders gathered Monday to share stories, brainstorm conservation ideas and unite to tackle an issue that will require careful care in perpetuity.

Kansas Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann delivered an opening address, noting that Garden City is the perfect location to hold the first summit because of its proximity to the aquifer’s geographic center.

“Agriculture is the most important industry in southwest Kansas and certainly in the county, which is Finney County, where we sit today," Mann said. “Water is critical — and we all know this — to the overall region.”

Mann noted that the Ogallala is the main source of water for all uses in western Kansas and to the state’s largest industry — agriculture. He added that agriculture makes up about 45 percent of the state's economy, and Kansas holds 3.5 million irrigated acres of farmland, with 1.4 million of those irrigated by the aquifer.

Don Brown, Colorado’s agriculture commissioner, told those in attendance Monday that states that utilize the Ogallala are mostly alone in their preservation efforts when it comes to federal assistance, and conservation issues must be addressed by an interstate grassroots coalition.

“We’re on our own in these sorts of issues,” he said.

The majority of the aquifer, 65 percent in volume, is in Nebraska. Texas holds 12 percent and Kansas 10 percent, Mace said.

Meanwhile, he added, the High Plains region accounts for 27 percent of all U.S. irrigated land and 30 percent of all U.S. groundwater used for irrigation. The region also supports 32,000, or 10 percent, of all U.S. farms and yields $20 billion in annual revenues in food and fiber production alone.

Without the aquifer, none of that would be possible.

Mace noted that the first large-scale irrigation experiment in Kansas started in 1908, with Texas following in 1910. At that time, he said, it was considered shameful in some parts to irrigate, because the practice was an indicator that God wasn’t providing enough.

But, “folks that moved out there saw the reality of the climate,” he said, and attitudes quickly changed.

Water pumping in Texas took off during the drought of the 1950s, when technology and necessity intersected. Daily irrigation pumping in the High Plains region as a whole has since risen to span about 43,000 acre-feet per day.

Residents of the plains first began to notice drops in the aquifer’s water level during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Today, swaths of western Kansas are facing total aquifer depletion within 25 years, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Mark Marsalis, superintendent at the Agricultural Science Center at New Mexico State University who also spoke at Monday's summit, said he admires the partnership between Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado, even if aquifer preservation efforts in his state may have come too late.

He said the state is now taking a reactive approach as large numbers of producers see their wells go dry.

“It’s pretty scary down there,” Marsalis said. “We’re ground zero right now for what can happen, so keep up the good work in your states.”

Different states have taken a variety of different conservation approaches, and Mace says that’s just the way it is. He noted that states have different ways of doing things that go back to early legal cases and constitutional provisions, “but that shouldn’t be a hindrance for the states working together, because in many ways, we’re using the aquifer in very similar ways.”

“I certainly hope that, working together, we can prevent the Great American Breadbasket from turning into the Great American Desert,” Mace said.

Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, told the audience he thinks the summit will be “hugely successful” in its mission to bring producers together to learn about innovative approaches from across state lines, especially in states like Kansas.

“I think the promise of having a sustainable aquifer is better than we ever though it was,” he said, citing data from the Kansas Geological Survey. “I think we’ll get there. I really do.”

He added that the aquifer’s water table is leveling off in some areas and showing significant returns.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion that we are going to deplete this aquifer,” Streeter said. “I think there are areas that can be stabilized.”

However, he added, there are also areas that can’t be saved.

Kyle Averhoff, general manager and managing partner at Royal Farms Dairy in Garden City, testified to the variability of the aquifer’s abundance, whether it be across state lines or a few miles away.

He said the saturated thickness of the aquifer at his home dairy is between 75 and 120 feet with an annual depletion rate of about 1.5 to 3 feet. Meanwhile, 20 miles away at his second dairy, the saturated thickness is between 200 and 300 feet with an annual depletion rate of 3 to 5 feet.

“As we deal with this aquifer, there’s no one size fits all,” Averhoff said. “There’s no western Kansas, western Oklahoma, west Texas. This is 20 miles between these two sites, and we have a dramatically different water picture.”

Still, Dr. Jackie McClaskey, Kansas’ secretary of agriculture, said what is done in each state affects every state utilizing the aquifer.

“It’s all about relationships,” McClaskey said. “Relationships are the way we solve problems. Relationships are the way we take on challenges, and we all know we have challenges in the Ogallala.”

More than anything, she said, the aquifer’s depletion presents just one more uncertainty in an industry that is already almost never certain.

“When you add uncertainty about water availability to uncertainty about prices to uncertainty about markets, it’s just really concerning for folks, especially those who imagine a scenario in which they’re going to pass their farmer ranch on to the next generation,” she said.

The summit continues Tuesday morning at the Clarion Inn.

 

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.