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Water Law
With Locals at the Helm, Kansas Charts New Course for Groundwater Management

As they have been doing for decades, political leaders and water managers in Kansas are upending Western water law traditions that originated before the state was even part of the Union.

Kansas Geological Survey infographic ogallala aquifer drought irrigation water crops food production agriculture
Image courtesy of Kansas Geological Survey
In western Kansas, crops are irrigated using water primarily from the Ogallala Aquifer, a finite and shrinking source of groundwater. A groundwater district in the state’s northwest will be the first to test a new law giving local residents the power to shape their own restrictions on water pumping. Click image to enlarge.

By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue

In the next few days, Kansas’s chief engineer will certify a bold new water plan for one of the state’s five groundwater management districts — a plan designed and supported by those who will be bound by its restrictions.

Farmers in a section of the Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District (GMD4) have agreed to a self-imposed 20 percent reduction over the next five years in the amount of water they pull out of the renowned and shrinking Ogallala Aquifer. They will use less water now, so that the finite water supply lasts longer.

“I applaud the local stakeholders, who have enough confidence in their farming skills that they can profitably irrigate with an 11-inch allocation. If they were worse farmers, they might need more water.”

–Burke Griggs,
Kansas assistant attorney general

The law enabling this feat of mutual self-preservation was passed last year in a package of water-management bills signed by Governor Sam Brownback (R), former head of the Kansas Department of Agriculture and a former U.S. Senator. The other laws in the package allowed farmers more flexibility in how they use their water rights.

Across many politically conservative states in the nation’s heartland, old water management principles, though not thrown out, are being modified to protect the basic ingredient of an agricultural economy. Farmers in Colorado and Texas, too, are responding to shrinking aquifers by putting limits on water use.

In Kansas — long a leader in innovative practices — an ethic of conservation, restriction, and flexibility, at least regarding water, has taken hold and is being led at the grassroots.

“At the end of the day, we need local support. We’ve seen a shift in mindset from ‘use it or lose it’ to a culture of conservation,” Mary Geiger, spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, told Circle of Blue. “Kansas is built on agriculture, and agriculture needs water. Farmers and ranchers want to pass their operation on to the next generation.”

Saving Water for Later

One of the people deeply involved in these negotiations is Wayne Bossert, who has led GMD4 for nearly four decades. His district is the guinea pig for the new law, which authorizes “local enhanced management areas,” or LEMAs.

Crop Insurance Innovations
Water restrictions are not the only new idea in the Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District. This year, the district will be the first in the nation to test a new form of federal crop insurance.
Right now, crop insurance comes in two flavors: fully irrigated or dryland. Payouts are based on past yields. But because the farmers in the Sheridan LEMA have agreed to cut back their water use, their yield expectations do not fit neatly into either category.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been working on a limited irrigation insurance program for several years, and the agency will roll out a pilot project this year in northwest Kansas.
The pilot program will allow the USDA to test its methodology for estimating yields when irrigation is limited, said Rebecca Davis, director of the Topeka, Kansas, office of the USDA’s crop insurance program. Davis told Circle of Blue the program is a good partnership for farmers, who can match their insurance with changes in water-management practices.
And as agricultural analyst Randy Landgren notes, demand for the insurance is likely to be high. Farmers face water restrictions not just in Kansas, he told Circle of Blue, but across the entire Western United States.

Bossert told Circle of Blue that formal discussions with local stakeholders about water restrictions began nearly five years ago. They drew up the boundaries for the restricted area and set the pumping limits before presenting them to the state last year, after the law was passed.

Their plan targets a 256-square-kilometer (99-square-mile) section of land, primarily in Sheridan County. Farmers in the Sheridan LEMA will be granted 69 centimeters of water per hectare (11 inches per acre) per year over the next five years, a 20 percent reduction from current allotments. Farmers have the flexibility to use a little more one year and a little less the next, as long as they do not exceed 3.5 meters per hectare (55 inches per acre) total by 2017. Livestock operations and recreational users also take a hit, but a smaller one, since they use less water.

Irrigation sucks up 80 percent of the water used in Kansas, and 96 percent of that water comes from aquifers. Sheridan County was selected for a LEMA because the area had a higher-than-average groundwater decline compared to the rest of GMD4.

“There was generally a strong consensus of support — not unanimous, but a consensus,” Bossert said about the plan, adding that the governor’s decision to champion the program was essential to getting the authorizing law through the legislature.

Confident Farmers

Burke Griggs helped write the statute when he worked at the Division of Water Resources. Now, an assistant attorney general for the state of Kansas, Griggs told Circle of Blue that the LEMA law strikes a balance between state authority and local control.

In the past, farmers could call on the chief engineer to administer water rights based on the priority system, in which older users are protected and junior claims are cut off. That course of action, Griggs explained, could enrage neighbors and ripple destructively through the local economy, if pumping were cut off completely. The result, he said, “was economic paralysis” and unchecked declines in the water table.

“Producers can overcome the reductions, to a large extent, by adopting new technologies and changing their field-management practices.”

–Bill Golden, agricultural economist
Kansas State University

The LEMA law, however, shifts the power balance. Unlike an earlier law, the chief engineer can only approve, reject, or send back a LEMA management plan for revisions; he cannot make changes himself.

“It deals with the problem of inaction by locals, who want to manage their resource, but who are concerned that a central authority can come in and adopt rules that don’t take notice of local economic conditions,” Griggs said.

As with any attempt to restrict water use, lawsuits are always possible. Bossert said the rumblings started the day that the process began, but have since gotten lighter and lighter.

“I haven’t heard anything recently,” he said.

One reason may be that farmers are feeling more confident and that the deprivation might not be as bad as feared.

“Producers can overcome the reductions, to a large extent, by adopting new technologies and changing their field-management practices,” said Bill Golden an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. Golden led a study that looked at the economic pain that might be caused by the water restrictions. He found little cause for concern.

Farmers Testify
At a public hearing at the county courthouse last November, farmers testified before David Barfield, the state’s chief engineer, that they supported the plan.
Brent Rogers, from northeast Sheridan County, claimed that farmers there form “the top echelon of farmers in the country” and that the plan’s flexibility would allow them to stay in business.
Roche Meier, whose farm lies within the LEMA boundaries, testified in support of the plan. The restrictions would decrease yields, he acknowledged, but the decrease was worth it, if it kept irrigated agriculture alive for future generations in Sheridan County.
Some who testified did not approve of the flexibility provisions, fearing that it might increase water pumping beyond what the plan envisioned. Barfield decided this was a hollow concern, but the plan would need careful evaluation to see if the benefits do in fact emerge.
No one at the hearing claimed that they would be harmed by an 11-inch-per-acre annual allocation.

“The regional economy probably benefits more than the producers, because the water stays around longer,” he told Circle of Blue.

State officials like Griggs, the assistant attorney general, hold similar views, noting that, although yields will decrease, so will overhead costs. In other words, farmers will spend less on diesel fuel to pump water and less on pesticides and fertilizers.

“I applaud the local stakeholders, who have enough confidence in their farming skills that they can profitably irrigate with an 11-inch allocation,” Griggs said. He paused, then laughed. “If they were worse farmers, they might need more water.”

An Experiment or a Blueprint?

For all its promise of water savings, the Sheridan LEMA is still an experiment.

“In 30 years, how many LEMAs do we have?” Griggs wondered. “Are there 80? Are there three? Do they cover a large block of land, or are they small?”

Other groundwater districts are paying attention and considering their own restrictions. In five years, the residents of the Sheridan LEMA will vote on extending the plan — only then will it be clear whether the trial is working.

“Unless this LEMA is renewed for a longer period,” Barfield wrote in his December 2012 order of decision, “then the work and cooperation of GMD4, the Kansas Geological Survey, and the Division of Water Resources will largely be wasted, and remembered as little more than a gesture.”

Author: Brett Walton  is a Seattle-based reporter for Circle of Blue. He writes our Federal Water Tap, a weekly breakdown of U.S. policy. Interests: Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Pricing, Infrastructure.

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3 Comments
  1. [...] Walton’s got another good story about what happens when communities creatively confront coming water shortages and take control [...]

  2. Not a huge issue, but the 11 inch per acre restriction is a 20% reduction from the recent historical use within the LEMA – not from the “..current allotments..”, which to me implies the current water rights. This new allocation is a much higher percentage reduction of the water rights than 20%. Regardless, a nicely written piece.

  3. […] about how to save water for years. Farmers in the northwest part of the state, for instance, have agreed to reduce the amount of water they pump from the Ogallala by 20 percent over the next five years. […]

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