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Looking long-term at the Ogallala Aquifer

As the daughter of a western Kansas farmer who began irrigating out of the Ogallala Aquifer in the 1960s, I realize what a financial boon irrigation has been. Few people worried then about the aquifer’s depletion, although, as far back as 1899, a government topographer sent to survey the High Plains concluded that withdrawals from the aquifer “…of an amount sufficient for irrigation would rapidly result in exhaustion of the stored supply.”

julene bair

Julene Bair is the author of “The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning.”

Now a recent Kansas State University study has put numbers to what should have been obvious all along: in 50 years, if no cutbacks are made, the aquifer will be 70% depleted. By 2110, only 13% will remain. Most farmers will have been forced to stop irrigating long before that time. In response to this dire warning, the governor-appointed water vision team recently released a draft plan that proposes to extend the aquifer’s usable lifetime by 25 years.

This is a very meager goal for an aquifer whose spring-fed streams and rivers have sustained human life for thousands of years, and for a water plan that claims Ogallala Aquifer conservation as its primary goal. To reach the goal, the draft calls for only a 20% reduction in aquifer withdrawals which would not begin until 2065—this although the K-State study that spurred the governor’s “call to action” warned that “the time to act will soon be past.”

For farmers who want to secure their children’s and grandchildren’s financial future, the discussion over Kansas’s 50 year water plan offers them a choice between handing down whatever profits they’ve managed to retain after the aquifer is depleted or handing down profitable land. “Cash is like water,” my own farming father said often. “It will trickle through your fingers. Land is solid. It will always be there.” Whether that land will have enough water left under it to remain productive is what hangs in the balance now.

The K-State study’s authors advised that the more drastically aquifer withdrawals are reduced now, the more corn will be harvested over the aquifer’s lifetime. They focused on corn because it and the cattle it feeds are the mainstay of the current economy. But the first thing this debate should bring into question is the wisdom of continuing to anchor the economy of a dry region in a crop that demands two or more feet of water each growing season.

The draft Water Vision asks readers to suggest “potential partners.” And one of the plan’s key action items is to “ensure water conservation is properly evaluated…when providing financial assistance.” But the plan does not mention that farmer’s primary partner, the federal Farm Program, is currently paying them to waste rather than conserve water. For the sake of the state’s economic and water future, Kansas’s 50 year water plan should demand that the federal government stop insuring corn when irrigated. It should also ask that corn be excluded from the ethanol mandate, which, after it went into effect in 2007, drove up corn prices and resulted in Kansas farmers’ planting over 500,000 more acres of corn.

In place of corn subsidies, the government should provide generous financial incentives for a return to dry-land crops and grazing. This is where Kansas agriculture is headed regardless—the only choice being between a soft landing now and a crash landing later. If both the state and federal governments continue to encourage farmers to pump water until it is gone, the farmers will have no way of supplementing their dry-land crops during droughts or increasingly hot summer weather. A water plan that truly comes to grips with this truth could keep thousands of farms from going bankrupt and taking the Kansas economy along with them.

Now that the ethanol juggernaut has been unleashed, most seem to believe that it cannot be stopped. Farmers, the Vision plan implies, should curtail withdrawals by a small amount sometime in the future and accept that the water will one day be gone. But Senators Diane Feinstein (D-Calif) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla) don’t seem to think such a reversal is impossible. In December, they introduced the bipartisan Corn Ethanol Mandate Elimination Act, which would exclude corn as a means of satisfying Renewable Fuel Standard requirements. This bill would greatly reduce aquifer depletion, yet it is languishing in the Environment and Public Works Committee as legislators, afraid of alienating their constituencies, choose instead to position themselves for the mid-term elections.  But what if Kansas farmers took the long-term view and spoke up?

It is not easy for any business person to accept less profit in the near term in order to guarantee that there will be a long term. But most farmers didn’t enter their profession in order to make quick profits. They have a long family history on the land. They are being called upon to make this tough decision in the interests of protecting that legacy. To let the governor’s vision team know that you want their final plan to discourage the federal government’s continued role in aquifer depletion, send your comments to Tracy Streeter, Director, Kansas Water Office, 900 SW Jackson St., Topeka 66612, Tracy.Streeter@kwo.ks.gov.

Julene Bair is the author of “The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning.” She now lives in Longmont, Colo. www.julenebair.com

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