By Kansas CIty Star, Sept. 7
Kansas has had a highly productive relationship with the Ogallala Aquifer for years. Rainfall is short for raising crops and cattle in the western sector of the Sunflower state. The aquifer has filled the moisture gap, enabling agriculture to thrive bountifully there.
Indeed, the aquifer has been a vital force in making agriculture one of the most reliable and prosperous players in the state’s economy.
But the partnership, which many thought could never be disrupted, is in trouble.
Too much is being asked of the aquifer, a reservoir of water that lies beneath eight states in the middle of the country. This valuable resource cannot replenish itself fast enough to meet the relentless, even irresponsible, demands placed on it by farmers, ranchers, cities and industry.
The aquifer, a water-bearing rock formation, has a long, long history. Scientists believe it formed millions of years ago as glaciers pulled back and streams from the Rocky Mountains flowed eastward onto the permeable gravel and sand of the plains. The result is a broad expanse of water that lies roughly between South Dakota and Texas.
Now the time has come to prevent further damage to the Ogallala.
Both users and the government are obligated to pursue efforts to ensure that the asset is used in the most efficient way possible, including judicious reductions in the taking of the water.
The imbalance between supply and consumption is substantiated in a recently released study by Kansas State University. If current trends continue, the study found, 69 percent of the aquifer in Kansas would be depleted by about 2060.
Only 15 percent of the water that is withdrawn is replaced through natural recovery, David Steward, a KSU professor of civil engineering and the study leader, said in an interview.
The study, four years in the making, shows that water-use efficiencies have been increasing about 2 percent a year in Kansas through technology, crop genetics and strategies in water management. These measures cannot overcome the current rate of consumption, however.
At some point, Steward observed, the rate of pumping will have to be cut back. The researchers propose five scenarios for prolonging the life of the aquifer through reduced usage of between 20 and 80 percent.
The aquifer issue is not lost on Gov. Sam Brownback. In recent days he focused on solutions at the quarterly meeting of his Council of Economic Advisors in Dodge City, Kan.
Corn is the irrigated area’s main crop. Last year’s harvest brought in $l.75 billion. Retail beef added $384 billion. The 56,000 people employed in those operations added $3.2 billion to the economy. An analysis showed how much less the revenues would have been without the aquifer.
At the conclusion of the session Brownback wisely called for development of a 50-year plan for improving use of the aquifer. Some steps have been taken. The Legislature enacted a law last year that allows aquifer conservation programs to be established at the local level. That process is underway in some areas.
The Ogallala has been an essential ingredient in the raising of food for generations, both for the United States and its exports abroad. We cannot afford to let it be drained into oblivion.