Texas and Kansas Farmers Take Different Paths to Saving Water
Scuttling decades of habit, legal precedence, and cultural resistance, agriculture on the Great Plains reluctantly moves toward decisions on water use, crop yields, and profits that have been put off for decades.
SHERIDAN COUNTY, Kansas — Hydraulic pumps and mechanized irrigation equipment gave America’s Great Plains farmers access to seemingly limitless subterranean water wealth: the Ogallala Aquifer.
Six decades have passed, though, since grain growers and cattle producers began tapping the aquifer with such sustained thirst that they drew more water to the surface each year than flows in the Colorado River. Now the eight-state, $30 billion agriculture and livestock industry that has relied on the aquifer for its own wealth and to produce one-fifth of the nation’s corn, wheat, and cattle faces a new era of reckoning.
It’s not that the contents of the aquifer, an underground sponge holding a finite supply of water, are steadily being depleted. That’s been known for decades. The problem that the Ogallala’s users face is that significantly more water is pumped out each year than filters back into the ground. Water drawn from the aquifer is measured in feet. Water that recharges the Ogallala is measured in fractions of an inch, which means the aquifer is like a coal seam that can be exhausted.
Two over-arching challenges confront Great Plains agriculture. How long into the future can the aquifer’s inevitable depletion be extended? And are farmers and business executives capable of scuttling decades of habit, legal precedence, and cultural influences in order to establish a durable water conservation ethic, and new production practices, that slash water consumption and are profitable?
The region can’t dawdle long in developing responses. Prime farming regions in Kansas and Texas have less than two decades of economical water. For some lands on the aquifer’s margins supplies have already run out, according to researchers at the Kansas Geological Survey and Texas Tech University. In these places, the end of the line for the Ogallala is now visible.
A respected Kansas State University study, published in August, found that to sustain the state’s water reserves for the long-term over decades, water consumption in Kansas from the Ogallala would need to be cut by 80 percent. That number struck farmers and feed lot owners from Colby to Garden City with the force of a winter blizzard.
Is such a reduction even possible in an industry accustomed to using as much water as it wants? Not without decimating the small prairie towns, say many farmers and Main Street business owners.
But circumstances in the lands that survived the Dust Bowl of the 1930s have reached a state of urgency sufficient to prompt responses from farm communities and states that only a few years ago were seen as either impractical or unnecessary.
Farmers in Sheridan County, Kansas, for instance, are embracing a 20 percent cut in water use, one of the strictest water limits on the Great Plains. A year ago the conservative Republican governor of Kansas revised out-of-date water laws to encourage better water stewardship.
In Texas, too, groundwater districts, regulatory bodies authorized by the state, are experimenting with pumping limits. But those jurisdictions are treading more carefully in a state with a longstanding tradition of viewing access to groundwater as an inviolable property right.
These policy changes, coupled with farming practices that protect water and soil, are the first buds of a new era of water conservation on the Great Plains, but an era rife with impediments to change.
“We are at a pivotal moment in our state. We can talk these issues to death, but without vision we won’t be able to address these priorities,” said Kansas Governor Sam Brownback in October, announcing that the state would prepare its first water plan, a long-term guide for how the Kansas will use the resource for the next 50 years. “Ensuring each citizen has a reliable water supply includes addressing both the groundwater decline in the Ogallala Aquifer as well as securing, protecting and restoring our reservoir storage.”
A National and Global Challenge
The dilemma on the High Plains – the mismatch between water use and supply – is the world’s challenge, too. Aquifers that nourish some of the richest farmland and the largest countries are under stress. Aquifers in California’s Central Valley, India’s Ganges Plain, the grasslands of northern China, and the Arabian Peninsula are all shrinking.
Farmers on each continent have taken deep drinks from their ground-fed fountains – growing food, feeding billions, and liberating themselves from the cost and politics of irrigation canal networks, where central authorities determine who gets water and when. But these benefits come at a significant long-term cost.
Wells are drying up. Water tables have dropped hundreds or thousands of feet, requiring ever-more energy to lift water to the surface. Almost a quarter of the world’s people live above a threatened aquifer, according to researchers at McGill University in Canada and Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
“The largest cause of groundwater stress is irrigated agriculture,” Tom Gleeson, an environmental engineer at McGill and lead author of the study, told Circle of Blue. “A lot of agriculture depends on the unsustainable use of groundwater. That can and will affect agricultural production.”
Defining the Ogallala’s Danger Zone
Water has always been an obsession in the modern history of the plains. Settlers from the eastern U.S., shocked by their big dry gamble, hired rain doctors to coax a shower from the sky. Goodland, Kansas, headquarters for several such charlatans, was known for a spell in the 1890s as the “rainmaking capital of the nation.”
The Ogallala, which covers part of eight states, was a real answer to water demands. Few rivers flow through these prairies and only 18 to 20 inches of rain falls every year. The Ogallala is the resource that makes American-style industrial scale farming possible on these former grasslands.
Used almost entirely for irrigated agriculture, the freshwater aquifer, one of the world’s most important for grain production, is geographically the bull’s-eye in the American heartland, sustaining Kansas wheat, Nebraska corn, and Texas beef. It holds trillions of gallons, more water than Lake Huron. Only India pulls more water from underground sources than the United States. Some 30 percent of what is pumped in the U.S. for irrigation comes from the Ogallala.
And, as scientists and water managers have warned for more than a half-century, the aquifer is not limitless. Parts of it are slowly dying. Because of that, conservation is the talk of the plains.
In too many areas, time is running short. The danger zone for the Ogallala, the region in which the amount of water remaining in the aquifer is lowest, is a rectangle of land running 725 kilometers (450 miles) from the Kansas-Nebraska line in the north to Lubbock, Texas in the south, and 320 kilometers (200 miles) east to west, roughly the width of the Texas Panhandle. This is where groundwater use is the highest, where feedlots and the tell-tale green circles of center-pivot irrigation cover the land.
But with an aquifer so large, the hydrogeology is complex. Not every state shares the same fate. In fact, the amount of water under Nebraska has increased in the last few decades because the water table is higher and more water filters into the aquifer. The Ogallala, in the words of nearly everyone in the region, is not a bathtub. It is not an underground pool with uniform depth and breadth.
“It’s more like an egg crate,” Brownie Wilson, a groundwater expert with the Kansas Geological Survey, told Circle of Blue. Which is to say that if you rolled up the topsoil like a carpet, you would find peaks and valleys of saturation underneath, ripples of moisture that vary even field by field within the danger zone.
The valleys that are the deepest, where groundwater levels have dropped the most since 1950, are in four places: north and south of the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle, southwest Kansas near Garden City, and northwest Kansas around Sheridan County. Three of the four have proposed water restrictions.
Conservation Results Mixed in Texas
In the Texas Panhandle, farm economics and water consumption have put big questions about water consumption into legal play with mixed results.
In 2005 the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District set an annual pumping limit of 24 inches per acre (651,700 gallons per acre). Seven years later the district cut the limit to 18 inches (488,800 gallons).
The limits have not hurt, said Danny Krienke, a North Plains district board member. He farms 6,000 acres near Perryton, just south of the Oklahoma border, irrigating one fifth of his fields and keeping the rest as dryland that rely on rainfall and get no supplemental irrigation.
“In this county we’re blessed with a lot of water,” Krienke told Circle of Blue, estimating that rains provide an average of 20 inches per year. “We can get by with 18 inches [from the aquifer] and still grow corn.”
But south of Krienke’s water district, two-year-old water restrictions have been roiling the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District that oversees groundwater in 16 counties around Lubbock.
In July 2011 the High Plains district’s five-member board voted in favor of pumping restrictions and mandatory annual reports from farmers detailing how much water they used.
Implementing the new rules proved difficult and led to an upheaval in the district’s leadership. In February 2012 the board, responding to howls from farmers, put a moratorium on enforcing the reporting requirements and restrictions. Nine months later, two board members that voted for the restrictions lost reelection bids. Two more resigned for health and personal reasons, and the general manager retired this summer after serving 12 years.
Most recently, in November 2013, the board voted to extend the moratorium, to December 31, 2014.
The conservation district board set the restrictions to comply with a state mandate to create a 50-year water plan for each groundwater district. The district’s staff is analyzing both the restrictions and the reporting requirements to gauge whether they are sufficient or excessive.
“We don’t want to have any more moratoriums,” Jason Coleman, the district’s manager, told Circle of Blue. “Generally people want to know what the program is and adjust accordingly. We’re going through data sets to determine if the limits are consistent with the intended result.”
Kansas Water Policy Departure
The most successful water conservation program in the Ogallala’s danger zone is in Kansas.
Riding shotgun high in the cab of his combine, its knives cutting furiously, Stuart Beckman scans the field of soybeans in front of him and taps at the dashboard computer screen. At harvest time last year, the northwest corner of the nation’s top wheat state was nearing the end of its third-driest year on record and the crops had withered. More rain helped this year.
Farmers in Sheridan County, Beckman included, are not seeking more water. They are agreeing to use less. They will reduce the amount of water they take out of the Ogallala by 20 percent over the next five years. The conservation plan, called a local enhanced management area (LEMA), is simple. Farmers, who are required to report water withdrawals to the state, will not pump as much.
They will plant different crops and be forced to manage their land better. Rather than yield-per-acre – a showy statistic that wins prizes – they will emphasize profit-per-acre by reducing expenditures on fertilizer, seeds, and energy and by conserving soil moisture. The rallying cry supporting the new plan: save water for the town’s children and grandchildren to use. It is an argument for the well being of future generations that is often made but only occasionally acted on.
The farmers in Sheridan County are the first group in Kansas to establish a LEMA. Less than a year into the plan, the evidence shows that the legally binding restrictions will change the way Sheridan farmers do business.
Stuart Beckman’s cropping decisions this year illustrate how farmers will adapt. Beckman farms land both inside and outside the Sheridan LEMA, an ideal experimental design to test the conservation program’s effects. In fields inside the LEMA, Beckman planted less thirsty wheat and sorghum, two crops that ruled western Kansas agriculture decades ago but have been supplanted by corn, the new king and top moneymaker.
Wheat requires one-third to one-half the water of corn. It does well as a dryland crop, as does sorghum whose heyday on the plains came during the drought of the 1950s. Some 63 percent of the 8 million hectares (19.7 million acres) of cropland in the Ogallala’s danger zone are dryland, a figure that will increase as the aquifer dwindles.
“A lot of guys are going back to planting wheat because it leaves a residue on the field to protect soil moisture,” said Beckman, 60, a third-generation farmer who started working the farm with his dad when he was in the sixth grade. Today he farms with two of his sons, ages 28 and 34.
Beckman planted the fields not under water restrictions outside the LEMA with corn and soybeans. These two crops form the base of the High Plains agricultural economy. Almost all the grain produced in the region is delivered to local feedlots to fatten cattle. If a farmer has enough water, the grain of choice is corn.
An Essential and Difficult Experiment
What makes the Sheridan, Kansas water conservation plan different is its judicious recognition of what’s culturally achievable for the time being. It was made possible in a package of legal reforms that Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, signed in 2012. The goal of the reforms: to adapt state water laws, which have a foundation in 19th century mining codes, to 21st century ideas about conservation.
The LEMA process transfers decision-making from the state to local water users. A new direction was necessary to break the inertia caused by the previous system for reducing water consumption, a widely despised rule that put state government staff in charge. In negotiating a LEMA, farmers set the terms of the deal, balancing their ideas of current and future water needs. Kansas cannot step in with a stricter standard. But once endorsed, the agreement has the force of law.
The LEMA plan in Sheridan will reduce the pressure on a tiny section of the Ogallala – just one-third of one percent of the aquifer’s surface area in Kansas – but not eliminate it completely. The 79 water-right holders in the Sheridan LEMA agreed to the same allocations — 55 inches of water per acre over five years, an average of 11 inches per acre (298,700 gallons per acre) per year and about 20 percent less than their recent historical use.
That sense of shared purpose is pervasive in Hoxie, the county seat. The camaraderie was essential in pushing the conservation plan from conception to completion.
“Hoxie is different,” said Mark Rude, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater District, comparing the town of 1,200 to the larger towns in his district. “It’s a tight-knit community with very few absentee landowners.”
Kate Wilkins-Wells is the new manager of the Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District, the district that oversees the 9,900 hectares (24,500 acres) in the Sheridan LEMA. “You have to give people the reins and give them responsibility for their resource,” Wilkins-Wells told Circle of Blue. “You won’t find another concept so pure and so spot on for preserving communities. It’s completely ground up with the backing of the state.”
In November, Wilkins-Wells and the staff at the Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District headed to Sherman County, two counties west of Sheridan, to initiate a public discussion. Folks there are interested in their own LEMA to conserve the Ogallala’s water.
“We’re prolonging the inevitable,” Wilkins-Wells said. “But we’re prolonging it as best we can.”