The future was the focus at the second and final day of the first Ogallala Aquifer Summit in Garden City.

An official from the Kansas Water Office said the event drew more than 200 people on both days, but of those 200, two acted as representatives of the next generation intent on leading the way in area water conservation efforts.

Grace Roth, a 16-year-old sophomore at Holcomb High School, attended the summit as an FFA member and liaison for the Kansas Youth Water Advocates (KYWA). She was joined by Noah Ochsner, an 18-year-old senior at Greeley County High School in Tribune who serves as the FFA district president.

Both young advocates were active throughout the summit, asking questions and providing input, because, Roth said, “As the next generation, we need to know how we can conserve our water.”

Among the panels of scientific experts and policy wonks, Roth was afforded her own segment on the second day of the summit in light of her role in the formation of KYWA about two years ago.

She also happens to be the daughter of Dwane Roth, a third-generation Kansas farmer advocating for sustainable food production through his Water Technology Farm near Holcomb — one of six Kansas farms where new irrigation technologies are researched in pursuit of water conservation under the auspices of the Kansas Water Office.

During her speech, Roth noted that 1 percent of water on Earth is available fresh water, while 97 percent is salt water, and the remaining 2 percent of fresh water is trapped in ice or underground.

“As you can see, water is a scarce and precious resource,” she said. “Here in Kansas, water is especially important. It’s critical in agriculture, and it’s critical for industry. It’s critical for our way of life.”

Roth added that while water conservation is needed now more than ever, many of the same water problems have been ongoing for years. The million-dollar question, she said, is, ‘What can we do to conserve our water for the next generations?’

Roth’s grandfather returned from the Air Force in December 1951 to farm just north of Holcomb and take up his father’s trade, she said. Through the generations, that practice has continued. Now, Roth and Ochsner say they just want to preserve the available water resources so their families don’t have to leave the state they call home.

“Yes, I do realize that this is not something we’re going to fix overnight, but by taking this first step forward together, we will ensure the future of our farms for generations to come,” Roth said. “We cannot afford to not do anything.”

She called on attendees to spread the word about water conservation, starting at the local level, “because the reality of this is, 30 years will go by in a flash.”

Though Ochsner didn’t deliver an address to the assembly, he said he’s trying to recruit high school students across southwest Kansas to become involved in discussions about water conservation.

“Something we’re both passionate about is getting people to understand that this starts with education,” he said. “This starts with not only educating high school students but adults and people in the community so that they understand what they’re doing and what technology is out there and available for them.”

Ochsner, a fifth-generation Kansan, said his family’s roots are in agriculture in Greeley County, the smallest county by population in the state. He said the county’s major economic engine is agriculture, “so no matter what, if you live in Greeley County, you’re invested in agriculture.”

When it comes to conservation practices, Saleh Taghvaeian, assistant professor and Extension specialist in water resources at Oklahoma State University’s Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, told those in attendance Tuesday that states aren’t actively adopting technologies like soil and crop sensors to monitor water efficiencies.

Using information from the Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey, he noted that only 11 percent of relevant producers use the sensors in Oklahoma, 7 percent in Arkansas, 12 percent in Kansas, 11 percent in Texas, and 23 percent in Nebraska, where the Ogallala Aquifer is biggest and healthiest. The national average is 11 percent.

“These sensors have been around for a long time, and yet there is only a small percentage of producers who are using it,” he said, adding that he’s part of a team studying the low adoption rate and trying to increase it.

Jim Butler, senior scientist and chief of the geohydrology section of the Kansas Geological Survey, noted that states overlying the Ogallala have been “heavily” utilizing it as a water resource for decades, which has come with a price.

In parts of Kansas, the aquifer already has depleted by 60 percent, he said, “and it’s not coming back.” He added that reduced pumping in intensively pumped areas still will result in small declines, but in areas with less pumping, the aquifer could still replenish.

On average, he said, reduced pumping will stabilize the aquifer, and parts of the state will require reduced pumping of as much as 32 percent to accomplish that goal.

Jordan Bell, assistant professor and Extension specialist in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M University, noted that the high plains of the Texas panhandle already have seen significant depletions in its aquifer area.

Within the next 30 years, she said, specialists expect it to deplete even more, reflecting a change in the health of the aquifer as it moves from Nebraska, where it is most abundant, south through Kansas and Colorado into Texas and New Mexico, where it continues to dry up.

The changes, she said, are resulting in significant alterations to cropping dynamics, especially in the northern panhandle, which was historically a corn-producing region. Now, producers are shifting to cotton, and in the last year regional cotton acreage surpassed corn acreage.

Still, shifting to cotton has allowed producers more flexibility in managing their limited water supplies while maximizing irrigation efficiencies through changes in crop rotations that were unviable with corn production.

Rod Lenz, president of the Republican River Water Conservation District in Colorado, said it doesn’t matter where producers are situated on the aquifer.

Whether it be differences in hydrology, laws or soil types, the desire among producers are the same, as are the policy challenges, he said, and keeping those policy decisions local is a “great idea,” but only if the people in charge at the local level “care to take action.”

“We’ve got to empower them, educate them and get them to do something,” Lenz said. “If they don’t, it will go up the pyramid and we will see counties, states, regions, federal supreme courts step in and take control. We don’t want that.”

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.