By SCOTT AUST
Speaking in Garden City on Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Sam Brownback touted new findings by the Kansas Geological Survey that appear to show stable use of water from the Ogallala Aquifer is achievable.
“We’re moving from a conserve and extend vision to one of sustainability, and we think this is achievable over roughly two-thirds of the region,” Brownback said during a stop at American Implement.
Brownback, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and representatives of the KGS and Kansas Water Office visited Hoxie and Garden City Tuesday as part of a water tour update related to the governor’s 50-year water vision initiative. He noted that sustainable use is possible through moderate reductions in water use coupled with ever-improving technologies that increase efficiencies in irrigation systems.
“With water management tools, like Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs) to water conservation areas to water banking, the repeal of the ‘use it or lose it’ water laws, coupled with new irrigation techniques like soil moisture probes, drip nozzle and mobile drip irrigation and sophisticated water management, it is possible to reduce our demands on the aquifer to a level of sustainability and still grow our crops to feed the world,” Brownback said. “It’s our legacy to future generations to take this information and put it to productive use in the conservation and utilization of this precious resource.”
Brownback said the significant focus placed on entire Ogallala Aquifer during the more than 600 meetings held across the state as part of the water vision effort the past several years has seen rewards. He said a recent study found the aquifer is replenishing itself faster than previously realized. which means, he said, that with some reductions in water use the state can reach a sustainable aquifer level for the next 10 to 20 years in two-thirds of the area covered by the aquifer.
“We’ve never talked in those terms before. We’ve talked about conserve and extend and what can we do to try to lengthen the life of it, which is important because each year we can extend it, we can get better technology … and we can get to these levels,” he said. “This news about sustainability is phenomenal because it means that future generations will have access to the water resources that we enjoy today. We’ve changed our mentality toward water in the state to a sustainable resource, not one that we’re just going to use up.”
Jim Butler, of the Kansas Geological Survey, showed that the rate of decline in the aquifer can be affected by water conservation efforts by irrigators.
Butler said between 2005 and 2015 irrigators pumped an average of 115,000 acre feet per year from the aquifer, which dropped the average water level in the aquifer about 3.4 feet per year – or about 41 inches of aquifer lost annually.
“Obviously, that’s not a sustainable situation,” he said.
Butler said the DWR now calculates that a 28 percent reduction in use would lead to stable water levels in this area, though the percentages would vary across the entire region.
“In this area, I think there’s a lot of potential to achieve stable water levels over the next 20 years,” Butler said.
Finney and Kearny county farmers have been working on a proposed LEMA for a 200 square mile area in northern Finney and Kearney counties that stretches from roughly Garden City to Lakin designed to reduce water use and increase the longevity of the aquifer in this area.
Dwane Roth, owner of Big D Water Technology Farm near Holcomb and one of the initial organizers of the push to form a local LEMA, highlighted the use of technology such as soil moisture probes and drip irrigation that have helped reduce how much water he needs to pump onto his fields.
The computerized probes tell Roth when he needs to pump. One of his fields the sensors indicate he doesn’t need to water for another 5.3 days.
“We’ve got 100 degrees forecasted for four days. It’s tough to do, but I’m going to leave that pivot off for four days. That’s four days I’m not pumping out of the Ogallala,” he said. “The technology is going so fast that we can’t even hardly keep up with it.”
Roth has had a concern about water being available to his children and grandchildren to continue farming if they choose to for quite some time. About a year ago, Roth called other farmers he knew to talk about some type of water conservation plan which led to development of plans for the Kearny Finney LEMA proposal.
Tom Willis, owner of T&O Farms, one of the state’s first Water Technology Farms, said on his farm, the goal is how to keep the income level the same while using less water. He has incorporated moisture probes and drip system on several fields and believes this year – which is drier and hotter than last year – will provide more information on how the technology performs.
Still, Willis said, his three biggest wells are running 100 to 150 gallons less this year and he’s seeing the same soil moisture saturation that he saw last year when he was running the wells heavier.
“The crops look to be in just as good condition as they can be considering the weather. My goal is, if we can do it with those three wells, I’ve achieved about a 40 percent reduction of water on that farm. I believe our revenue will stay the same,” he said.
Willis’ company, Conestoga Energy, also has two ethanol plants that use about 60 million bushels of grain from southwest Kansas, which is another incentive to see local producers succeed.
“The difference between us being able to return big dividend checks to our investors and not being able to return anything is whether we have to buy our grain locally or we have to import it in from South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa,” Willis said, adding that the difference can mean between $30 million to $40 million.
“That’s why I have a second vested interest in seeing this technology adapted because of what it does for the company,” Willis said.
Troy Dumler, general manager of the Garden City Company, has 76 irrigation wells with pumping capacity ranging from 100 to 1,200 gallons per minute, and 97 center pivot systems owned by tenants on company land, and access to surface irrigation through the ditch system. He said they have seen a 19 percent reduction in pumping capacity over the past 10 years which has had an impact.
“We’re definitely interested in working to conserve and extend, not just for ourselves but for the regional impact as well. We want be around the community for a lot longer,” he said.