A farmer's perspective on the state's Water Vision plan

7/9/2014

By Amy Bickel

By Amy Bickel

Special to The Telegram

The Arkansas River was flowing when Randy Hayzlett's ancestors first sunk an irrigation well into the hardscrabble western Kansas soil in the 1950s.

At the time, in fact, the water table was only 5 feet from the surface.

However, more than 60 years later, the Ark rarely flows. The Ogallala Aquifer and the alluvial water table that Hayzlett pumps water from to irrigate his crops have dropped about 60 feet. He had to redrill the well last year.

On Tuesday, the Lakin-area farmer sat at a meeting with about 100 others at the 4-H building in Garden City, listening as state officials unveiled the first draft of a proposal that they call the beginnings of a solution to prolong the life of the Ogallala Aquifer — the lifeblood of the western Kansas economy.

"I'm sorry they didn't get started 25 years ago," said Hazylett, who also serves on several state water boards, including southwest Kansas' Groundwater Management District No. 3.

He called the first draft "a good start."

Potential solution

Last fall, Gov. Sam Brownback charged the state and his administration to come up with a plan to extend the life of the Ogallala, which has been dwindling since the advent of irrigation in the 1940s and 1950s.

The facts, after all, are straightforward: Kansas farmers and others across the state have, for several decades, been consuming groundwater faster than nature can recharge it. 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 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 eastern Kansas reservoir storage space will be filled with sediment if nothing is done to stop it.

Thus, for the past six months, state officials have held more than 150 meetings that have attracted nearly 10,000 Kansans. They asked them to help weld a plan that could save the water supply while continuing to grow the Kansas economy.

Meetings on the draft plan, unveiled last week, started Monday. The group had meetings Tuesday in Liberal, Garden City and Dighton — areas where the largest quantities of groundwater are being pumped to irrigate crops like corn. The meetings conclude Friday in eastern Kansas, where surface-water issues such as sedimentation are the bigger issues.

But this isn't an east-versus-west issue, added Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey. Even folks in Johnson County are affected by the dwindling Ogallala and the economy that the underground reserve has developed around it.

"The motivation is now," she said. "The entire state needs to grow economically, and we all know we are sitting over the largest economic driver in Kansas."

McClaskey, along with other ag department staff and members of the Kansas Water Office, went through the plan with the group, stressing the fact that the plan is a working document.

"The is a compilation of all the discussion — to give you an opportunity to react on what this should be," she said, adding that when officials began to craft the measure they were committed to making sure "it wasn't something that will just sit on the shelf."

The first draft calls for a mixture of voluntary, as well as mandatory, efforts to help preserve the resource another 25 years, said Kansas Water Office Director Tracy Streeter.

It also addresses advances in irrigation and seed technology, water management and new sources of water, such as water transfers from eastern Kansas to the western part of the state.

The goal of the proposal is to achieve a 20 percent per-capita reduction in water consumption by 2035 while continuing to increase economic growth. It also aims at reducing statewide water consumption by 20 percent by 2065.

It's a starting point, McClaskey said.

"The 20 percent is not set in stone," she said. "If we think we should cut, what should that number be? Should it be statewide overall, should it be applied to different regions at different rates? What should that goal be?

"We don't want you to get hung up on 'Why 20 percent, why this or why that?' " McClaskey said. "These are examples to help start it."

But are these suggestions enough?

A 25-year extension only puts the Ogallala economy through the life of his grandchildren, said one resident. He questioned whether officials thought into the future far enough.

Others stressed those already making conservation efforts shouldn't be penalized the same as neighbors who have never curbed their pumping.

Jetmore lawmaker John Ewy said more education about the economy of water and the resource itself is needed, especially as the population becomes generations removed from agriculture.

"We have to figure out a way to educate the general public — maybe it is to get the average person to realize water is a serious issue," Ewy said, adding the school system might be the place to start.

Others weighed in on the plan, as well.

* Solutions should create a sustainable water source.

* A solution could be to pipe water from Lake Manitoba or Lake Winnipeg, following the oil and gas pipeline through Kansas.

* Studies should be done to develop more alternative crops, such as drought-tolerant corn or more use of cotton.

* The plan should include a solution to the salt cedar problem, an invasive species that is using a lot of water along the streams and rivers.

Water officials also tried to stop misinformation.

"Right now, we don't have an interstate compact with the water," said one woman. "Kansas wants to punish us by raising the fees. What we save here is going to Texas, and they are using it there."

The water doesn't move much and the gradient is still leaning toward Kansas rather than Oklahoma and Texas, said one state official.

The woman also voiced concern that the state's priority system for water could change to a preference system that would benefit more urban areas like Johnson and Sedgwick counties.

That's not being considered in the plan, officials said.

Meanwhile, changes to state law wouldn't happen without the approval of the Kansas Legislature, said Hayzlett, who also serves on the Kansas Water Authority board.

The final draft of the plan, expected to be unveiled at the Governor's Water Conference in November, might also be included in the Kansas Water Authority's annual report to the state Legislature in January.

Hayzlett said other plans have been formed, including one in 1993 that offered solutions, but the situation is more dire today.

The water table continues to lower, including on his farm. Others are in the same predicament.

"When my ancestors started farming the land, they could take a post hole digger and hit water," he said.

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