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To save water in the Ogallala aquifer, look to parts of Kansas already using less

David Condos
Kansas News Service
A center pivot irrigation sprinkler sprays water onto crops in Finney County. Center pivot irrigation is a popular irrigation method in Kansas, but it applies water at a high rate.

People in the agriculture industry are still looking for local solutions to save what is left of the Ogallala aquifer that supports western Kansas. But systemic challenges are making it a slow effort.

LIBERAL, Kansas —  Through the parched region of the High Plains that lives and dies by groundwater, states are paying attention to western Kansas to see how farmers are managing with less water.

Farmers are increasingly feeling the pressure to find answers to an emptying aquifer as more of their irrigation wells that give the state an abundance of grain and power the economy run dry.

But there are some areas that are starting to see success with local solutions.

Katie Durham, a groundwater district manager, said it’s time to start having difficult conversations with neighbors and industry partners to see actual improvement to the aquifer.

“If we do not do something, we are not going to be here, and we need people to understand what we could do if we stretch that resource,” Durham said.

A group of farmers and academics share ideas and concerns regarding water conservation. People gathered in Liberal, Kansas, for the 2024 Ogallala Aquifer Summit.
Calen Moore
Kansas News Service
A group of farmers and academics share ideas and concerns regarding water conservation. People gathered in Liberal, Kansas, for the 2024 Ogallala Aquifer Summit.

Roughly 200 conservationists, academics and farmers shared their hopes, concerns and expertise earlier this month at the 2024 Ogallala Aquifer Summit in Liberal, Kansas. Their conclusion: Preserving the status quo is dangerous, and a promising way to move forward is through what’s known as Local Enhanced Management Area plans, or LEMAs.

According to the Kansas Geological Survey, the only option Kansans have as of now to extend the life of the aquifer is to reduce water pumping.

Success stories

Western Kansas is divided into five Groundwater Management Districts, or GMDs.

As of now, the only districts to adopt LEMAs, which are tools where goals are set to encourage farmers to pump less water, are districts 1 and 4 in northwest Kansas. Those two districts were the only areas that saw an average increase in groundwater levels last year.

“They're working, and therefore industries are choosing to stay and they're choosing to invest,” said Durham, manager of GMD 1. “That keeps our local economies alive; that keeps our schools and our hospitals open and thriving.”

Durham’s region currently has two local water management plans. The Wichita County LEMA went active in 2021 with the goal to reduce water use by 25%. The area has overperformed, reducing water use by 40%.

And it’s not alone. The Sheridan County LEMA, in district 4, forced farmers to cut irrigation by 20%. But they decreased their water use by 31% back in 2021, and now they have gone even further, voluntarily cutting irrigation by 40%.

A Michigan State University study found that less irrigation means slightly smaller harvests. But the money farmers in the study saved on their energy bills by pumping less water was four times more than the amount of money they lost due to decreased production.

Why action is needed

That kind of progress may end up changing the minds of western Kansas farmers. Brownie Wilson from the Kansas Geological Survey says parts of northwest Kansas are inching closer to a more stabilized aquifer.

But in southwest and south central Kansas, where there are no water reduction plans, those regions saw the most average aquifer level declines in 2023, despite having the fourth wettest summer on record.

Brownie Wilson from the Kansas Geological Survey explains "how far out of whack" the region is in terms of sustainable groundwater use. His measurements of groundwater levels indicate a high rate of use in the southwest region of Kansas, and a lower use in the regions where LEMAs are present.
Calen Moore
Kansas News Service
Brownie Wilson from the Kansas Geological Survey explains "how far out of whack" the region is in terms of sustainable groundwater use. His measurements of groundwater levels indicate an increasing rate of water use in the southwest region of Kansas, and a decreasing rate of use in the regions where LEMAs are present.

“I like to think of it in terms of how far ‘out of whack’ are we,” Wilson said. “These are just the numbers here, no way around it.”

Through brainstorming activities, summit attendees agreed that grassroots solutions focused on local collaboration are the way to cut back on irrigation in an area.

Meagan Schipanski from Colorado State emphasized the importance of engaging the next generation and adaptability.

“Last time we met, we talked about the value of water, and really there isn’t just one way to reduce our water use,” Schipanski said.

This is a stark contrast to the discussions from 2018 when the first summit was held. The goal then was to start an open dialogue between farmers and water conservationists in different states. This year, the conversation was more action-oriented.

“For the last several years, I have been told the Ogallala is going away, but it does appear to be going away slower in some places, which is good,” Robert Herrington of Prairie Foods in central Kansas said.

There are still obstacles

Despite the progress, there are still challenges that are driving overall aquifer declines across the state.

One is that despite increasing numbers of farmers coming to the Ogallala Aquifer Summit, they still were outnumbered by scientists and university personnel. And the farmers who attended mostly had already bought into the idea of reducing water pumping. Actual change would need to take place in the minds of those who have yet to buy in.

New tools introduced at the meeting included OpenET, which measures how much water is lost to evaporation when irrigating. The data showed western Kansas can lose anywhere from 9 to 19 inches of water to evaporation sprayed over crops. Other simulations and demo tools interested farmers looking to experiment without risking their actual land first. But critics said these tools were still just ways to irrigate at unsustainable levels.

Farmers said their desire for local solutions comes from a lack of cooperation at a federal level.

Fred Fischer, a producer in the Oklahoma Panhandle, discussed struggles with risk management assessment. Farmers adopt crop insurance through these assessments to protect their crops in case of failure from drought or other variables.

The downside is that to prove crop growers are not responsible for the failure, they must prove they did not underwater their crops, which leads to them continuing to spray millions of gallons of water on an already failed crop.

“I would love to turn my pumps off if my crop fails to save water, but I can’t, so we need more flexible options,” Fischer said.

These systemic issues will most likely be addressed in the next farm bill, which is currently stalled in Congress.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, urged attendees at the conference to keep pushing for a farm bill, and to keep pushing to save the Ogallala aquifer.

“I want my hometown of Plainville to be around for generations to come,” Moran said. “What can we do today that makes that more likely?”

Calen Moore is the western Kansas reporter for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can reach him at cmoore@hppr.org.