Going it Alone

Apr 12, 2017

Louise and Vance Emhke, farmers from Lane County, Kansas, share their thoughts about water and replenishment as part of the 2017 Spring Read for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.
Credit EMHKE

VANCE:   Hey! I'm Vance Ehmke and we farm in Lane County KS. Today Louise and I are going to talk about stretching water.

LOUISE: While most people in western Kansan would like to conserve irrigation water,can one man go it alone?

VANCE: 40 years ago I was up at K-State talking with ag economist Don Pretzer about ways to conserve the Ogallala aquifer. And he made a very good observation.

LOUISE: Let's say there is a section of ground and each quarter has an irrigation well on it. One farmer decides he's going to do the right thing by shutting off his well so he can conserve the water. Don said all you're going to get out of doing that is a warm feeling in your heart that you did the right thing -- and your neighbors will get all the water.

VANCE: More recently in talking with Bill Mai from Sharon Springs, he said that's exactly what happens. Back in 1948 his family drilled an irrigation well. It was pumping 1000 gallons a minute. But 51 years later, it was down to about 325. And about half the water was gone. At that point, Bill decided to shut the well off along with several others. He did that for two reasons.

LOUISE: From the moral point of view,he felt we have an obligation to future generations to leave them something. “Here in western Kansas, water is very important to the viability and sustainability of our communities."

But in addition, from an economic point of view, he felt they were as well off with dryland farming. Part of that was – and this is important – was because even though they shut the wells off, he got to keep the higher irrigated crop bases that government payments are based on.

VANCE: So how did his conservation efforts work? Fortunatly this one well is an observation well so every year, detailed measurements are made. And, while a surprise to many, even though he shut his wells off, the water table has continued to drop.

LOUISE:  Over the past 16 years, the water table ha s dropped another 25 feet leaving only 20% of the water.

VANCE: Where is the water going? Bill says active irrigation wells about a mile to the north and west and others to the southeast explain the continuing drop in the water table. "Wells northwest of here are keeping water from reaching here while those to the southeast are literally pulling water out from under us."

LOUISE: So what does this mean? Bill says even though one man by himself can't solve the problem, he can make a contribution. “Nonetheless, we could do a better job is everybody were involved rather than just single operators.”  But more than anything, we also need to be taking the long view. We need to visualize what our farms and communities will look like in the next 50 to 100 years.  We also need to realize that water likely will be much more valuable in the future.”

VANCE: But one of the problems with conservation is a very powerful economic principal: the time value of money. A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. To maximize return, we farmers have got to use natural resources like irrigation water as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

LOUISE: But if we use our irrigation water supplies today like there is no tomorrow, we have guaranteed there will be no tomorrow.

VANCE: This is Vance and Louise Ehmke from Lane County for the High Plains Public Radio Readers Book Club.

Louise Emhke and her sons were not thinking about what a lack of water might mean in this 1986 photo of the family rafting on one of the playa lakes on their Lane County Farm. Consider the changes three decades can make.
Credit Louise Emhke, 1986