Flying east to west over Kansas, the land transforms from lush green to desert brown. Rectangular farm plots fill in with emerald circles, the work of center-pivot irrigation.
Outside Garden City, in the middle of one of those circles, Dwane Roth scoops up soil to reveal an inconspicuous PVC pipe. It’s a soil moisture probe that tells Roth exactly how much water his crops need. The device is one of many new technologies designed to help farmers make the most of every drop.
“All that you have to do is open up your app,” said Roth. “It’s going to tell you, you don’t need to irrigate or you’re going to need to apply an inch within six days.”
For generations, farmers like Roth have looked not to the heavens for the rain to nurture their crops, but to wells, pumps and sprinklers that heaved water up from the Ogallala Aquifer — America’s largest underground reservoir. They transformed the semi-arid region into some of the nation’s most productive farmland.
But the water’s running out.
“Those shallower wells, there’s no more water left in them,” said Roth.
If pumping continues at current rates, most of southwest Kansas will exhaust its water reserves within 25 to 50 years. That could dry up the agriculture at the heart of the region’s economy.
The threat of that impending crisis drives farmers, Roth among them, to adopt technology that helps preserve their wells without hurting the bottom line.
Other farmers are rallying together to self-impose strict local pumping limits.
But yet another faction fears conservation efforts can’t stave off the inevitable. They think the region needs a more radical solution. And soon. They want to create a giant canal to pump new water west — even if it means spending billions.
Pushing pumping limits
In 2013, Sheridan County farmers created the state’s first local enhanced management area, or LEMA, to set strict, enforceable limits on how much farmers could pump.
A 2017 study showed that farmers within that water district pumped 25 percent less water, in part from switching from corn to less thirsty crops such as sorghum and wheat. Notably, they made similar profits to nearby farmers who didn’t face pumping limits.
After Sheridan County had success with limits on irrigation, less strict measures spread to the surrounding area.
After that success in Sheridan County, the entire surrounding water district adopted limits. Its water restrictions are less severe, but it expands the conservation approach into parts of 10 counties in northwest Kansas.
“We've put in some restrictions which should lessen the decline rate,” said Ray Luhman, the manager of Groundwater Management District 4, which contains Sheridan County. “But, you know, we're not anywhere near anything that would stabilize the water table.”
A LEMA has been proposed for southwest Kansas as well, but getting farmers to agree on its terms has been hard.
Pumping limits, in general, have been called into question. Some farmers in the expanded LEMA around Sheridan County, for instance, say the pumping restrictions violate their water rights and court fights may lie ahead.
The Great Canal of Kansas
Clayton Scott also uses the latest water technology on his farm in Big Bow.
Yet he said that just using water carefully won’t be enough.
He thinks any pumping limits severe enough to preserve the aquifer would dramatically cut back the region’s harvest. That would push up local grain prices, and without cheap grain, livestock feed yards would close, and meatpacking plants would follow.
At its core, the western Kansas economy is built on irrigation.
A 2015 study calculated that losses in irrigation could cost some 240,000 Kansans their jobs and wipe out $18.3 billion of yearly economic activity, or about 10 percent of the state economy.
Scott and others in the region have their eyes on a more drastic solution to the water problem. Kansas could invest in a 360-mile series of canals and pumping stations to bring in water from the Missouri River.
He knows it sounds extreme, but Arizona has already built a similarly-sized aqueduct. The Central Arizona Project diverts water from the Colorado River, and there’s been extensive research into building a similar canal across Kansas.
“Arizona looked at their situation and decided, ‘We have no other choice,’” Scott said. “They estimate almost a trillion dollars of benefit to the economy of Arizona.”
Arizona’s aqueduct has always been controversial. The federally funded canal remains at the center of multi-state disputes of water usage.
Experts say that a generation later, the legal and regulatory hurdles of building a long-distance canal through Kansas only look more daunting.
Water from the Colorado River is channeled through Arizona, much the way some people think it should be diverted from the Missouri River across Kansas.
Still, Kansas and surrounding states have been considering aqueducts for a long time. A 1982 study came up with a plan to bring water from the Missouri River to a reservoir near Utica, but nothing ever came of it. At the time, though, losing the Ogallala seemed like a distant prospect.
In 2011, while western Kansas was in a drought and farmers struggled to pump enough water to keep their crops alive, the Missouri River was flooding. Scott says that sparked renewed interest in a canal.
“It's a long-term solution,” Scott said. “We can harvest the high flows of water off of the eastern rivers and bring them out here into the western High Plains, offset the droughts … and bring things into more of a balance.”
In 2015, the Kansas Water Office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers re-assessed that 1982 study. The agencies estimated that, depending on the capacity of the canal, it would now cost between $5 billion and $20 billion to build.
Because the water would have to be pumped uphill as it goes west, it could take more than $500 million a year in energy costs alone, for the largest-capacity canal. With interest costs from construction, the yearly tab could exceed $1.5 billion.
At the time, the head of the water office said, “this thing we studied is unlikely to happen.” The costs would simply run too steep.
A canal project would have other barriers. Although the Missouri river sometimes floods, it also experiences lows, and levels would have to be maintained to permit barge traffic. There would also be challenges displacing people in the path of the aqueduct. While a highway can be redirected to avoid a town, a canal’s path is more constrained by topography.
At the same time, environmental issues could come both from taking water from the Missouri and in the path of any aqueduct. Upstream and downstream states on the waterway already tangle over how to manage the water. An effort to siphon away water would further complicate the situation.
Scott knows the project would be massive, and massively controversial, but that’s why he’s talking about it now — before the Ogallala runs dry.
An uncertain future
At a conference in April, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey said public support for an aqueduct is unlikely unless farmers show first that there's no other way to water their crops.
“Until we can show people that we are utilizing every drop of water in the best way possible,” said McClaskey. “No one outside of this region is going to invest in a water transfer project.”
Scott says he isn’t looking for the rest of Kansas to bail out the farmers out west. He imagines the canal would be a federal project, similar to Arizona’s aqueduct. Water users would repay the costs of construction and maintenance through a water use fee.
Scott says an aqueduct could extend out to Colorado’s Front Range to supply booming cities such as Denver and Colorado Springs that draw water off of the dwindling Colorado River. If they drank from Kansas’ aqueduct instead, that would leave more water to trickle down the Colorado, which extends out into water-starved southern California.
A canal, advocates contend, could supply water at a fraction of the price that southern California farmers pay now and help alleviate shortages in that region.
Scott’s interest in water transfer is common in southwest Kansas but far from universal. For example, Roth isn’t convinced.
“It's impractical and it's one heck of a distraction,” said Roth. “Right now we need to concentrate on local conservation with what we do have, what we can do right now.”
Ray Luhman, Northwest Water district manager, thinks the state should consider all options, including channeling water across the state.
“The conversation needs to be had,” he said. “But to, let's say, mortgage your future on a project maybe 20 to 30 years from completion? We also need to look to something in the interim.”
Ben Kuebrich reports for High Plains Public Radio in Garden City and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and HPPR covering health, education and politics.