No ‘lollipops or rainbows,’ but hope abounds – Current Kansas State policy is to drain the Ogallala Aquifer
Tough talk flows on water conservation
By Tim Unruh
Sep 9, 2022
A social brought together many different facets of the water industry in a recent conference in southwest Kansas. (Photo by Tim Unruh.)
Through a bank of windows and beyond a balcony, irony lurked in lush landscape as experts in many disciplines stepped to a podium at Southwind Country Club in Garden City, Kansas.
Aroma from a prime rib dinner wafted into the dining hall while 120 people absorbed discussions of dwindling water supplies in the western third of Kansas.
Brownie Wilson (Photo by Tim Unruh.)
Saturated thickness of the underground water supply in parts of western Kansas has generally dwindled as much as 30 feet over the past decade alone, estimated Brownie Wilson, water data manager for the Kansas Geological Survey.
That bleak fact produced some long faces, while outside, lengthy streams of the life-giving liquid shot out of an irrigation system and a fountain spewed tall from the center of a pond.
Beautiful views gracing the Aug. 21 gathering commanded little attention, however, as more pressing issues surfaced inside. Temporarily sheltered from another scorching, dry summer, serious matters ruled the evening. Water gurus from four states offered advice on how to extend the vital Ogallala Aquifer’s life in the nation’s productive midsection, an important food source for the nation.
“I wish I could tell you that everything was going to be lollipops and rainbows, but it’s not. We’ve got some issues to take care of,” said Bill Golden, an agricultural economist for Kansas State University who works in west Texas.
An economy relying heavily on farming, ranching and dairies on the semiarid High Plains is firmly hinged to pumping water from the aquifer.
Irrigation was overdeveloped during the middle to late 20th century. Hundreds to thousands of wells drilled during that era have gone dry, or soon will. Leaders are calling for collective action.
Some think decades-old issues are fixable and the all-important region of Kansas will continue to prosper. But most agreed it will take some solidarity, cooperation from key players, and good science to map successful plans to tackle these challenging times.
“Today, you will hear about an opportunity to integrate an entire value chain,” said Dwane Roth, of Manhattan, strategic sustainability manager for Syngenta, who opened discussions on “The Future of the Ogallala Aquifer.” Syngenta was among the 15 sponsors.
“The biggest threat to our industry and our economy is water,” he said. “Water is our most precious resource.”
Cooperative effort necessary
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-KS, converses with constituents that include Gina Gigot, shown at right. (Photo by Tim Unruh.)
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-KS, offered remarks at the country club dinner, and the next day led his annual Conservation Tour, accompanied by several dozen people to three stops in Kearny and Finney counties.
“This is an opportunity to gain input from dairies, feedlots and farms, see if we can work together for long-term prospects in Kansas,” the lawmaker said. “We cannot just solve water at dairies and feedyards. It has to involve everyone.”
Water is among the hot topics discussed by many during Moran’s trips home to look and listen.
“Almost every time I’ve done a conservation tour, without question, (discussion) comes to water quality and water quantity,” he said. “I look forward to the education you give me to try to make a difference.”
Bottom line, the issues are about securing a future for the region’s staple industries and occupations held dear.
The top eight production counties in the state are in southwest Kansas, generating $6.4 billion annually, according to K-State research. The southwest corner is the top water user in Kansas, according to Wilson.
Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam sensed “concern” among fellow audience members, although there were positives shared.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-KS, visits with the Kansas Dairy Development team as part of his conservation tour. (Photo by Tim Unruh.)
“There was good, updated data on what the future looks like if we collectively don’t extend the life of the aquifer. There’s some encouraging research and findings about agricultural production that may allow us to do more with less,” he said. “I know there’s been frustration over the years that all we do is talk about it. This is so complex that we need the stakeholders to be engaged in talks amongst themselves with interest. The answer cannot come from Topeka.”
Earl Lewis is the chief engineer with the Department of Water Resources in Kansas. (Photo by Tim Unruh.)
A confusing fact to Earl Lewis, chief engineer of the Kansas Division of Water Resources, is that historical directives from the state government don’t agree with what some seek in western Kansas, including the majority of water officials.
“The current state policy is to drain the aquifer. It’s a conscious decision that the legislature made back in the 1950s,” said Lewis, who attended events in Garden City and Finney County last month.
“From discussions in 1957 about how to apply the Water Appropriation Act to the Ogallala Aquifer, legislators realized they had this large water resource that they could put to use. So the discussion was whether to allow that to happen, and whether to abandon the first in time, first in right Water Appropriation doctrine,” he said.
In other words, older rights have seniority over junior rights.
“(Lawmakers in ’57) said they wanted to use the resource for economic gains, but they left the prior appropriation system in place,” Lewis said, “and once we got to the end, the first-in-time, first-in-right doctrine would still apply.”
The chief engineer wonders if current state leaders still hold to that directive.
“My reaction is I don’t think we have talked about doing it that way. The current focus to conserve and extend the life of the aquifer provides a false sense of what the future holds,” Lewis said. “How do we match the planned depletion policy of the state with the desire that we have a sustained economy?”
Asked how he would craft such a plan, he deferred to elected officials for that chore.
Cattle producer Tom Jones listens to information being shared. (Photo by Tim Unruh.)
Talks are important to Tom Jones, managing member of Hy-Plains Feedyard, LLC near Montezuma, Kansas.
“Collaboration will be the key to water conservation. Period,” he said.
Roth’s worries are deeply personal. A former Finney County farmer, north of Holcomb, Kansas, he is helping his family through a succession of ownership and management to a younger generation of producers.
They are dependent on irrigation, which has kept these parts in bloom for three-fourths of a century.
Hopes are high that the precious resource can be managed for long-term sustainability.
But it’s going to take some work.
“We can reduce water use,” Golden said. “If we don’t, a lot of land is going to dry up.”
He predicted 30% of irrigated acres in western Kansas will eventually need to be converted back to pasture unless something is done to reduce pumping in those areas.
Conversion not easy
One-fifth of the irrigated acres in Finney County alone are not suitable for dryland farming, he said, due largely to the sandy soils that are incapable of storing necessary moisture to sustain crops during dry periods.
But with more targeted and efficient use of water, a number in attendance at Southwind agreed the Ogallala’s life can gain some years.
“We can do better,” Golden said. “We probably don’t need to use the water we do.”
• Planting more drought-tolerant and lower-water-use crops, holding moisture in the soil with less tillage and shading by keeping crop residue on the surface.
• Making greater use of digital technologies—with the right internet service—connected to tools such as soil moisture probes that can alert irrigators to apply the amount of water crops need—no more, no less—which has proven to reduce pumping.
Fewer than 8% of producers are using irrigation technology, Roth was quoted as saying in an Aug. 15 High Plains Journal story.
Amy Kremen, associate director of the Irrigation Innovation Consortium, shared this observation supported by 2018 data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Irrigation and Water Management Surveys: “Today, in 2022, most producers decide to irrigate by feeling the soil by hand, looking at the crop by eye, or seeing if their neighbors are irrigating.”
Her presentation included K-State research showing that 70% of Kansas producers revealed in a survey during that same year, that they “probably can’t reduce” groundwater use, while 18.4% responded that they “probably can.”
Local voluntary efforts are proving that pumping less, with little or no cuts to productivity and profitability, is possible, Wilson said, referring to the Sheridan 6 Local Enhanced Management Area in northwest Kansas. A community of irrigators agreed to reduce water use starting in 2013. Analysis showed participants improved cash flows while using less water, according to reports from economist Golden.
“They cut pumping from 30,000- to 18,000-acre feet per growing season,” Wilson said. “With 10 to 15% reductions, you can get anything from 10 to 20 years of (additional) life out of the Ogallala Aquifer, but it can vary widely by location.”
There are currently three LEMAs in western Kansas, none yet in southwest Kansas, but there are Water Conservation Areas in that region.
“We can do this. You can make substantial reductions in pumping and not be harmed economically. That’s what Bill Golden’s studies told us,” said Tracy Streeter, a business consultant for Burns and McDonnell’s global water practice. He previously spent 14 years as director of the Kansas Water office, serving under four governors.
Some sense of optimism, too
Streeter’s trip to southwest Kansas left him and others both intrigued and hopeful.
Whether it’s curbing irrigation runoff from fields or keeping lawn sprinklers from sending water into storm drains, water conservation is for everyone, Kremen said, not just farmers and other big users.
“Everybody can do something. This is a shift for everyone,” she said. “The ways we each use water needs to be considered. We need everyone to use only the water they need.”
Switching to producing forage for cattle in Kansas, requires less water than traditional grain crops.
“There are industries in western Kansas that generate more revenue per acre foot and have a higher value than corn,” Golden said. “Ranching, feedlots, and meat packing employ 11 times as many people and generate 11 times as much revenue. We can’t let those industries go out of business.”
He suggested a big switch to producing less water intensive food for cattle menus.
“You don’t have to have the corn for them; 40% to 50% of the corn consumed by the feedlots is already imported. What we can’t bring in economically is the forage,” Golden said. “We’ve got to think these things through, make sure the beef and corn industries talk and we’ve got to protect the beef industry.”
Doldrums were replaced with optimism when Tom Jones addressed the audience.
“We can slow this water usage down, slow the depletion rate and keep our businesses going for several more years,” he said. “I don’t want to move.”
Jones suggested doing studies on feeding grain sorghum as an alternative to feeding corn that requires significantly more water, and raising cattle more suited to gain weight faster, while grading Choice or Prime.
“I found out eight or nine years ago there were better genetics out there. People in Kansas and other states were selecting for Choice grading,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be Angus to Hereford or a certain breed type. We’re selecting for quality grade using proper genetics.
“I don’t think we need as much starch in the ration, or need as many days on feed to make cattle grade Choice,” Jones said.
The goal all along was creating a better system that’s “more feed efficient, which means it uses less water,” he said. “We’ve been able to use less corn with these cattle because they’re more feed efficient, due to genetic selection. They eat less feed, using less water and they meet the necessary high grade of Choice or Prime. They reach that level with fewer days on feed, which means less corn in the ration, which means less water needed to grow the corn.
“More meat, more milk per gallon.”
One all-in strategy
When it comes to using less water, Gina Gigot is all in. The co-owner of Circle Land & Cattle—with brother Mark Gigot—in southern Finney County, hales from a family well-known for its corn production.
But this generation embarked on a major shift in 2018, thanks mainly to the shrinking saturated thickness of the aquifer.
“Anything grown in southwest Kansas has to do with the dairy or beef industries,” she said.
The Gigots placed their 68 quarters of land into a Water Conservation Area, designed by her late husband, Rod Stillwell.
“Rod said ‘All we’ve got to do is put all of our (irrigation) systems down from 800 (gallons per minute) to pumping 500 gallons a minute or less, switch to Senninger IWOB nozzles, and figure out the crop to make it work,’” Gina Gigot said. “We have pumped from 500 to 300 gallons a minute to make the crop and comply with the WCA. We said, ‘everything we’re going to grow will either be baled, ensiled, or pastured for beef or dairy cattle located on our property or next to it.’”
The forage crop triticale is among their major plantings.
During this fifth year in the WCA, static levels of their wells have improved.
After 2021, water savings was 25.7%.
“We’ve stabilized the (aquifer water table) level on our land,” she said. “This needs to be done throughout the Ogallala region.”
The family farmer-ranchers are far from finished in their mission to save water.
They are in talks with Garden City officials who have developed feasibility and marketing studies with the Bureau of Reclamation to utilize reclaimed water to recharge the aquifer that feeds the Gigot operation and roughly half of the city’s water supply.
The project stems from the November 2017 opening of the Dairy Farmers of America dairy ingredients plant in Garden City.
Roughly 3.5 million gallons of effluent water goes into the Arkansas River daily, 1 million of that from the DFA plant after fresh milk is dehydrated into powdered milk, according to an April 25 HPJ story.
Garden City leaders brainstormed the most efficient ways to use the treated wastewater, said Fred Jones, the city’s water resource manager.
“We started working with Burns and McDonnell for alternatives. It led to a federal grant from the (Federal) Bureau of Reclamation to do a water reuse feasibility study and marketing study.”
The city explored the use of reclaimed water for irrigation, industrial uses, aquifer storage and recharge, or reuse as potable water.
The city is pursuing a project to transport the reclaimed water through a 16-inch pipeline adjacent to Garden City’s well field 2 1/2 miles southwest of town, to an area that includes the Gigots’ Circle Land and Cattle operation, and the Kansas Department Wildlife & Parks’ Sandsage Bison Range.
The proposed project will use reclaimed water to irrigate 12 circles of cropland, with a corresponding reduction in groundwater use by Circle Land & Cattle,” Fred Jones said.
Infiltration basins will be created at the Sandsage Range, where recharge will occur “during times when we’re not irrigating,” he said.
The first phase will cost an estimated $19.1 million.
Reclaimed water resources from the city, a billion gallons per year, will stabilize the groundwater supply in the well field, according to hydrologic studies.
“We feel confident it will have a very positive impact. Our goal is stopping the decline and even having gains (in saturated thickness),” the resource manager said. “That would be pretty impactful if that was the case.”
The city selected this area for the project based on factors that improve groundwater conditions for the city, Jones said, to provide future water security.
“The Gigots’ participation in a WCA has shown benefits to aquifer conditions,” he said. “The proximity of their property to the Sandsage Range and the city water supply, drove the concept.”
The city will negotiate with the Gigots and KDWP officials to determine their share of the cost.
“I am excited for the project,” Gina Gigot said. “We are on a rechargeable basin. When the river actually flowed, you could go to our wells and could hear how it was recharging. You could feel the pressure.”
Soon relief could be coming from the pipeline.
“With the project in that well field, we can stop the groundwater decline,” Fred Jones said. “We’re trying to reduce the city’s water footprint. Preserving the water will help preserve and utilize the land.”
The project can preserve wealth in the land, he said.
“This is not a panacea or a silver bullet,” Jones said, “but we are all doing what we can to keep that land in production.”
There are other efforts statewide, he said, among them is a similar reclamation project in Dodge City with Hilmar Cheese Company coming to town.
With water savings from three LEMAs and other WCAs across western Kansas, Streeter said, efforts are chipping away at the problem.
“Garden City’s being very aggressive because depletion is not an option for them. They have to have a source of water for their city. While all are great initiatives, it’s going to be fairly small in the grand scheme,” he said. “Based on what we’ve heard from the LEMAs, Gina’s WCA and others, all indications are we can pump less and maintain economic viability.”
Wilson is encouraged by what he learned from listening and seeing in Kearny and Finney counties.
Are there merits in LEMAs, WCAs and other water saving efforts, enough to solve the water decline problem in western Kansas?
“I think they can put a dent in it,” Wilson said, “or at least kick the can down the road.”
Kansas needs much more of the same, Streeter said.
“Presently, we’re not doing enough,” Dwane Roth agreed. “We’re just getting started.”
Tim Unruh can be reached at journal.