Kansas and the Corps of Engineers are taking another look at the Kansas Aqueduct

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue
Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):

The new analysis, to be started this year and completed in 2015, will reassess the Kansas Aqueduct, one of four projects evaluated 31 years ago to provide water to high plains farms in Kansas and reduce the draw on the Ogallala aquifer, the region’s primary source of water for irrigation. None of the water transport projects that were evaluated in the 1982 study were built.

But one project, the Kansas Aqueduct, which would draw water from a turn in the Missouri River about 145 kilometers (90 miles) upstream of Kansas City, and drop it into a reservoir roughly 600 kilometers (375 miles) away in western Kansas, attracted significant attention.

The cost of the new $US 300,000 study will be shared equally by the state and the federal government, said Mark Rude, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District. Rude added that the region’s strong farm economy and the urgency of extending the Ogallala’s life as a source of water to agriculture make this a useful period to reconsider the Kansas Aqueduct.

“The Kansas Aqueduct Project must be pursued while production income, property values and the economic system are in place to support the project,” Rude wrote in a June letter to state water officials…

Because of high plains geology and climate, water percolates into the aquifer each year in inches; but in order to sustain a thriving grain-and-cattle industry, water is pumped out in feet.

The farmers and cattlemen in Rude’s district in southwest Kansas know this fact all too well. Rude told Circle of Blue that current rates of groundwater extraction – mining, really – are about nine percent sustainable. In other words, the amount of water pumped out of that part of the aquifer would have to be cut by 90 percent to find a balance. Such a reduction would decimate the region’s towns.

Over the years, all that water has created a more prosperous life on the plains than the early pioneers could ever have imagined. The economic structure, formidable for the time being, collapses without water.

“Everything we need is here already,” Rude says, talking about the grain elevators, equipment dealers and related agricultural infrastructure in western Kansas. “But new investment needs water-confidence. How do we provide that when we are cutting water use? It’s ideal to have both cuts and new supplies and manage the aquifer more like a reservoir.”

Farmers in northwest Kansas, in Sheridan County, have agreed to self-imposed restrictions on the amount of water they draw from the Ogallala. It is an experiment that has yet to catch on elsewhere in the state.

Economics are foremost in Rude’s mind because the aqueduct would be a whopper of a project, at least double the estimated $US 3.6 billion price tag three decades ago, and comparable in scale to massive water diversions like the 540-kilometer (360-mile) Central Arizona Project that was approved before the Carter administration and built mostly with federal money.

Rude scoffs at the suggestion that a Kansas aqueduct is a relic of a by-gone age. “I’m comfortable if you say it’s a Roman project in the 21st century,” he said, recalling the channels that satiated Caesar’s capital more than two millennia ago. “The aquifer is a question that has to be dealt with.”

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