Some folks in SW #Kansas are pushing the “Great Canal of Kansas”

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

From the Kansas News Service. (Ben Kuebrich) via the Hillsboro Free Press:

Great Canal of Kansas

Clayton Scott also uses the latest water technology on his farm in Big Bow. Yet he said that just using water carefully won’t be enough.

He thinks any pumping limits severe enough to preserve the aquifer would dramatically cut back the region’s harvest. That would push up local grain prices, and without cheap grain, livestock feed yards would close, and meatpacking plants would follow.

At its core, the western Kansas economy is built on irrigation.

A 2015 study calculated that losses in irrigation could cost some 240,000 Kansans their jobs and wipe out $18.3 billion of yearly economic activity, or about 10 percent of the state economy.

Scott and others in the region have their eyes on a more drastic solution to the water problem. Kansas could invest in a 360-mile series of canals and pumping stations to bring in water from the Missouri River.

He knows it sounds extreme, but Arizona has already built a similarly sized aqueduct. The Central Arizona Project diverts water from the Colorado River and there’s been extensive research into building a similar canal across Kansas.

“Arizona looked at their situation and decided, ‘We have no other choice,’ ” Scott said. “They estimate almost a trillion dollars of benefit to the economy of Arizona.”

Arizona’s aqueduct has always been controversial. The federally funded canal remains at the center of multi-state disputes of water usage.

Experts say that a generation later, the legal and regulatory hurdles of building a long-distance canal through Kansas only look more daunting.

Water from the Colorado River is channeled through Arizona, much the way some people think it should be diverted from the Missouri River across Kansas.

Pricey pipeline

Still, Kansas and surrounding states have been considering aqueducts for a long time. A 1982 study came up with a plan to bring water from the Missouri River to a reservoir near Utica, Kansas, but nothing ever came of it. At the time, though, losing the Ogallala seemed like a distant prospect.

In 2011, while western Kansas was in a drought and farmers struggled to pump enough water to keep their crops alive, the Missouri River was flooding. Scott says that sparked renewed interest in a canal.

“It’s a long-term solution,” Scott said. “We can harvest the high flows of water off of the eastern rivers and bring them out here into the western High Plains, offset the droughts … and bring things into more of a balance.”

In 2015, the Kansas Water Office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers re-assessed that 1982 study. The agencies estimated that, depending on the capacity of the canal, it would now cost between $5 billion and $20 billion to build.

Because the water would have to be pumped uphill as it goes west, it could take more than $500 million a year in energy costs alone, for the largest-capacity canal. With interest costs from construction, the yearly tab could exceed $1.5 billion.

At the time, the head of the water office said, “this thing we studied is unlikely to happen.” The costs would simply run too steep.

A canal project would have other barriers. Although the Missouri river sometimes floods, it also experiences lows, and levels would have to be maintained to permit barge traffic. There would also be challenges displacing people in the path of the aqueduct. While a highway can be redirected to avoid a town, a canal’s path is more constrained by topography.

At the same time, environmental issues could come both from taking water from the Missouri and in the path of any aqueduct. Upstream and downstream states on the waterway already tangle over how to manage the water. An effort to siphon away water would further complicate the situation.

Scott knows the project would be massive, and massively controversial, but that’s why he’s talking about it now—before the Ogallala runs dry.

An uncertain future

At a conference in April, Kansas Secretary of Agricul­ture Jackie McClaskey said public support for an aqueduct is unlikely unless farmers show first that there’s no other way to water their crops.

“Until we can show people that we are utilizing every drop of water in the best way possible, no one outside of this region is going to invest in a water transfer project,” McClaskey said.

Clayton Scott says he isn’t looking for the rest of Kansas to bail out the farmers out west.

Scott imagines the canal would be a federal project, similar to Arizona’s aqueduct. Water users would repay the costs of construction and maintenance through a water use fee.

He also contends that an aqueduct could help a broader region.

Scott says an aqueduct could extend out to Colo­rado’s Front Range to supply booming cities such as Denver and Colorado Springs that draw water off of the dwindling Colorado River. If they drank from Kansas’ aqueduct instead, that would leave more water to trickle down the Colorado, which extends out into water-starved southern California.

A canal, advocates contend, could supply water at a fraction of the price that southern California farmers pay now and help alleviate shortages in that region.

Scott’s interest in water transfer is common in southwest Kansas but far from universal. For example, Roth isn’t convinced.

“It’s impractical and it’s one heck of a distraction,” Roth said. “Right now we need to concentrate on local conservation with what we do have, what we can do right now.”

Ray Luhman, Northwest Water district manager, thinks the state should consider all options, including channeling water across the state.

“The conversation needs to be had,” Luhman said. “But to, let’s say, mortgage your future on a project maybe 20 to 30 years from completion? We also need to look to something in the interim.”

Ben Kuebrich reports for High Plains Public Radio in Garden City and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and HPPR covering health, education and politics.

Recap of the first Ogallala Water Summit

From The Hutchinson News (Chance Hoener):

When early explorers Zebulon Pike and Francisco de Coronado came upon the High Plains, they described it as a desert — an impossible region to farm.

Irrigation changed that. It allowed residents to pull water from the Ogallala Aquifer, and grow crops nearly anywhere. The first irrigation wells in Kansas were drilled east of Garden City in 1908.

The Ogallala is a massive, underground sponge, spanning from South Dakota and Wyoming, down through the High Plains to west Texas and New Mexico. Over 27,000 of the total 35,000 wells with active water rights in Kansas overlie the Ogallala, with 87 percent used for irrigation.

But decades of pumping water out, with little return, has taken its toll.

After 110 years of drilling and draining, the world’s largest aquifer is drying up.

The Ogallala is the primary source of water for western Kansas farms, ranches and some communities, but projections indicate several areas that will go dry within 25 to 50 years at current usage rates. Some regions in Haskell County may have a decade or less…

The Ogallala Aquifer Summit was organized by Colorado State University’s Ogallala Water CAP Program — a coordinated agriculture project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture – National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The summit brought together scientists, government agents and producers from the eight states situated over the Ogallala to discuss shared challenges and current initiatives to preserve the aquifer.

Conversations between states had a rocky start, partly because they were spurred out of litigation regarding the Republican River basin along the Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas borders. The conflict led to monthly meetings of the Republican River Compact Administration — comprised of one member from each state — to change the approach and improve water management.

“No offense to those that are here, but I’m just excited to come to an interstate water conference that doesn’t have more lawyers than it does farmers and ranchers,” Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey said to applause from the summit crowd.

Nebraska Natural Resources Program Director Jesse Bradley and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown joined McClaskey for the first panel of the summit, discussing the cultivation of interstate conversations.

Brown joked that the whole problem was Nebraska’s fault — Nebraska native Frank Zybach invented center pivot irrigation while living in Colorado — and Bradley fired back that ‘you always blame the upstream state.’

She credits interstate conversations regarding the Republican River as a critical factor for changing the tone of the discussion. Instead of fighting over the water, the group is now working together to preserve water.

“The biggest way we learned this lesson is from the complete 180 we’ve done on the Republican River discussions,” McClaskey said. “In July 2014, we started meeting month-to-month and created a true, long-term agreement, and are using those lessons to expand to all the states.

“Now, I would call my colleagues from Nebraska and Colorado friends, which may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a lot easier to solve a problem with a friend than with an enemy.”

@Ogallala_water: Ogallala Aquifer Summit April 9-10, 2018

High Plains aquifer water-level changes, predevelopment (about 1950) to 2015. Figure 1 from USGS SIR 2017-5040.(Public domain.)

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register.

Groundwater levels steady in western Kansas, decrease around Wichita — @KUNews

Graphic via the University of Kansas.

From the University of Kansas:

Groundwater levels during 2017, on average, rose slightly or nearly broke even in western Kansas but fell in the Wichita area, according to preliminary data compiled by the Kansas Geological Survey. This was a reversal from 2016 when overall groundwater levels dropped in western Kansas and increased significantly near Wichita.

The KGS — based at the University of Kansas — and the Division of Water Resources (DWR) of the Kansas Department of Agriculture annually measure levels in about 1,400 water wells in western and central Kansas. The collected data are used to monitor the condition and long-term trends of the High Plains aquifer, the state’s most valuable groundwater resource, as well as smaller deep and shallow aquifers.

The High Plains aquifer is a network of water-bearing rocks that underlies parts of eight states and, in Kansas, comprises three individual aquifers—the far-reaching Ogallala aquifer that makes up the majority of the High Plains aquifer, the Equus Beds around Wichita and Hutchinson, and the Great Bend Prairie aquifer in the center of the state. Ninety percent of the measured wells draw from these three aquifers.

Water level changes or stability in the Ogallala aquifer in western Kansas correspond primarily with the amount of water withdrawn for irrigation, which in turn is influenced by the rate and timing of precipitation.

“Much of the western border of Kansas and eastern Colorado saw above normal precipitation patterns in 2017, especially through most of the growing season,” said Brownie Wilson, KGS water-data manager. “As a consequence, water levels were at or above the 2016 levels in much of the region.”

Water level increases in western Kansas mainly occur when the levels in wells rebound as pumping slows. Recharge — water seeping down from the surface — is negligible in western Kansas. In central Kansas, where the aquifer is shallower and average precipitation is higher, recharge can make a difference.

“For areas that have higher local recharge capabilities, such as along and north of the Arkansas River in the Equus Beds and Great Bend Prairie aquifer, precipitation generally influences both pumping and recharge,” Wilson said. “There you can get large swings in declines and rises from year to year.”

The 2017 growing season around the Equus Beds was fairly dry, which led to low recharge and higher withdrawal for irrigation, industry and municipal water supplies. Consequently, the Equus Beds declined nearly 2 feet. The Great Bend Prairie aquifer, which encompasses Great Bend, Kinsley, Greensburg and Pratt, fared better with an increase of about a quarter of a foot.

Most of the wells in the network monitored by the KGS and DWR are within the boundaries of the state’s five Groundwater Management Districts (GMDs), which are organized and governed by area landowners and local water users to address water-resource issues.

In Southwest Kansas GMD 3, average levels dropped just 0.05 feet, the lowest decline there since since the state began administrating the water-level program in 1996. In comparison, the average level fell a total of 23 feet over the previous 10 years.

“Water levels were notably higher in Morton County and along and north of the Arkansas River,” Wilson said. “Still, there were localized areas in the GMD that experienced declines of 1 to 3 feet.”

Even with better overall measurement results in the region for the year, the aquifer is nearly depleted in places.

Wells monitored in GMD 3 are drilled into the Ogallala aquifer except in a few areas where they draw from the deeper Dakota aquifer. The district includes all or part of Grant, Haskell, Gray, Finney, Stanton, Ford, Morton, Stevens, Seward, Hamilton, Kearny and Meade counties.

Another rare water-related event in the region occurred in the summer of 2017 when the Arkansas River flowed in Garden City. The river there has been mainly dry for decades due to high water use and less river flow from Colorado. When there is surface water in the river, it interacts with groundwater in an adjacent shallow alluvial aquifer.

Western Kansas GMD 1 experienced a slight drop of 0.19 feet in 2017 following a 0.55 feet in 2016. Although decreases there have been less drastic than farther south, annual levels have risen only twice since 1996. The GMD includes portions of Wallace, Greeley, Wichita, Scott and Lane counties, where the majority of wells are drilled into the Ogallala aquifer.

Northwest Kansas GMD 4 had an average increase in water levels of 0.33 feet after falling slightly in all but two year since 1996. GMD 4 covers Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan and parts of Cheyenne, Rawlins, Decatur, Graham, Wallace, Logan and Gove counties. Groundwater there is pumped almost exclusively from the Ogallala aquifer and shallow alluvial sources associated with streams.

Big Bend GMD 5 had an average increase of 0.26 feet following an increase of 0.88 feet in 2016. Since 1996, annual levels there rose nine times and fell 13 times. The GMD is centered on the Great Bend Prairie aquifer underlying Stafford and Pratt counties and parts of Barton, Pawnee, Edwards, Kiowa, Reno and Rice counties.

Equus Beds GMD 2, a major source of water for Wichita, Hutchinson and surrounding towns experienced a decline of 1.93 feet, which followed an increase of 2.08 feet in 2016. Since 1996, annual levels there rose nine times and dropped 13 times. The GMD covers portions of Reno, Sedgwick, Harvey and McPherson counties.

“Even with the big declines in GMD 2, this is one of the best years we’ve seen in quite a long time,” Wilson said.

The KGS measures approximately 570 wells in western Kansas each January, and DWR staff from field offices in Stockton, Garden City and Stafford measure about 220, 224 and 360 wells in western and central Kansas, respectively. Most of the wells, spread over 48 counties, are used for irrigation and have been measured for decades.

Measurements are taken primarily in January when water levels are least likely to fluctuate due to irrigation. Infrequently, however, later-than-normal pumping during dry conditions may affect measurement results.

The results are provisional and subject to revision based on additional analysis. Data by well will be available in late February at http://www.kgs.ku.edu/Magellan/WaterLevels/index.html.
The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. The university’s mission is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities and making discoveries that change the world. The KU News Service is the central public relations office for the Lawrence campus.

@NSF: How much water flows into agricultural irrigation? New study provides 18-year water use record

Here’s the release from the National Science Foundation (Cheryl Dybas/Val Ostrowski):

Irrigation for agriculture is the largest use of fresh water around the globe, but precise records and maps of when and where water is applied by farmers are difficult to locate. Now a team of researchers has discovered how to track water used in agriculture.

In a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the researchers detail their use of satellite images to produce annual maps of irrigation. The findings, the scientists said, will help farmers, water resource managers and others understand agricultural irrigation choices and make better water management decisions.

“We want to know how human activities are having an impact on the environment,” said hydrogeologist David Hyndman of Michigan State University (MSU), principal investigator of the project. “Irrigation nearly doubles crop yields and increases farmer incomes, but unsustainable water use for irrigation is resulting in depletion of groundwater aquifers around the world. The question is: ‘How can we best use water?'”

The paper highlights the need to know when and where irrigation is occurring to effectively manage water resources.

The project focuses on an economically important agricultural region of the central U.S.–the Republican River Basin–that overlies portions of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, and provides surface water and groundwater to the High Plains Aquifer. The team found that irrigation in this area roughly doubled between 2002 and 2016.

Water use in this region can be complicated because it is regulated to preserve stream flow into Kansas in accordance with the Republican River Compact of 1942.

“Previously, we knew what farms were equipped to irrigate, but not which fields were actually irrigated in any particular year,” said Jillian Deines, also of MSU and the paper’s lead author. “Our irrigation maps provide this information over 18 years and can be used to understand the factors that contribute to irrigation decisions.”

The researchers used Google Earth Engine, a cloud-computing platform that makes large-scale satellite and environmental data analyses available to the public, to quantify changes in irrigation from year to year–an important finding for farmers, crop consultants and policymakers working to improve the efficiency of irrigation.

Google Earth Engine has been an asset for computing the large number of satellite images needed, the scientists said. “It allows researchers to use consistent methods to examine large regions through time,” Deines said.

The project, which also involves MSU research associate Anthony Kendall, is supported by the joint National Science Foundation (NSF)-USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Water, Sustainability and Climate (WSC) program and the joint NSF-NIFA Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program.

“Knowing what to plant, how much land to plant, and how much irrigation water is necessary to support a crop through harvest has been a challenge for farmers throughout time,” said Tom Torgersen, NSF program officer for WSC and INFEWS. “Farmers can now envision a future where models will provide options to help guide decisions for greater efficiency and crop productivity.”

Program managers at USDA-NIFA said that demand for agricultural products will likely increase in the future, while water for irrigation may decrease due to water quality issues and competitive uses.

The Republican River Basin researchers “leveraged new computing power to handle the ‘Big Data’ of all available Landsat satellite scenes, and developed irrigation maps that help explain human decisions about irrigation water use,” said Jim Dobrowolski, program officer in NIFA’s Division of Environmental Systems. The maps hold the promise, he said, of the ability to make future water use predictions.

A NASA graduate fellowship program award also funded the research.

High Plains Aquifer pumping is impacting surface water and native fish

High Plains Aquifer via Colorado State University.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

The agricultural overpumping from thousands of wells continues despite decades of warnings from researchers that the aquifer — also known as the Ogallala, the world’s largest underground body of fresh water — is shrinking.

Even if farmers radically reduced pumping, the latest research finds, the aquifer wouldn’t refill for centuries. Farmers say they cannot handle this on their own.

But there is no agreement among the eight affected states (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, South Dakota) to try to save the aquifer. And state rules allow total depletion.

Republican River Basin by District

In fact, Colorado officials faced with legal challenges from Kansas over dwindling surface water in the Republican River have found that their best option to comply with a 1942 compact is to take more water out of the aquifer. The state bought wells from farmers during the past decade and has been pumping out 11,500 acre-feet of water a year, enough to satisfy a small city, delivering it through a $60 million, 12-mile pipeline northeast of Wray to artificially resuscitate the river.

The overpumping reflects a pattern, seen worldwide, where people with knowledge that they’re exceeding nature’s limits nevertheless cling to destructive practices that hasten an environmental backlash.

The depletion of the High Plains Aquifer has been happening for decades, according to bulletins U.S. Geological Survey has put out since 1988. Colorado farmers this year pumped groundwater out of 4,000 wells, state records show, siphoning as much as 500 gallons a minute from each well to irrigate roughly 580,000 acres — mostly to grow corn, a water-intensive crop.

The depth where groundwater can be tapped has fallen by as much as 100 feet in eastern Colorado, USGS data show. That means pump motors must work harder to pull up the same amount of water, using more energy — raising costs for farmers. The amount of water siphoned from the aquifer since 1950 to irrigate farm fields across the eight states tops 273 million acre-feet (89 trillion gallons) — about 70 percent of the water in Lake Erie.

On one hand, the industrial center-pivot irrigation techniques perfected after World War II have brought consistency to farming by tapping the “sponge” of saturated sediment that links the aquifer to surface water in streams and rivers. America’s breadbasket produces $35 billion of crops a year. On the other hand, intense irrigation is breaking ecosystems apart.

Overpumping has dried up 358 miles of surface rivers and streams across a 200-square-mile area covering eastern Colorado, western Kansas and Nebraska, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife-backed researchers from Colorado State University and Kansas State University who published a peer-reviewed report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers also determined that, if farmers keep pumping water at the current pace, another 177 miles of rivers and streams will be lost before 2060…

Disappearing fish species — minnows, suckers, catfish that had evolved to endure periodic droughts — signal to biologists that ecological effects may be reaching a tipping point.

The amount of water held in the aquifer under eastern Colorado decreased by 19.6 million acre-feet — 6.4 trillion gallons — from 1950 until 2015, USGS records show. That’s an average loss of 300,000 acre-feet a year. Between 2011 and 2015, records show, the water available under Colorado in the aquifer decreased by 3.2 million acre-feet — an annual average shrinkage of 800,000 acre-feet. Climate change factors, including rainfall, play into the rate of the drawdown…

They say they’re trying. They’ve reduced the land irrigated in eastern Colorado by 30,000 acres since 2006. They plan to retire another 25,000 acres over the next decade, said Rod Lenz, president of the Republican River Water Conservation District, who for years has advocated use of technology to grow more crops with less water…

Farmer and cattleman Robert Boyd, a leader of the Arikaree Groundwater Management District, said the federal government should intervene to ensure survival of High Plains agriculture…

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

He pointed to proposals to divert water from the Missouri River Basin and move it westward through pipelines across the Great Plains…

But drawing down the aquifer does not violate any law in Colorado. The state engineer’s office monitors well levels and requires permits for wells, limiting the number of acres a farmer can irrigate. But there’s no hard limit on how much water can be pumped…

[Mike] Sullivan and state engineer Kevin Rein emphasized that thousands of acres no longer are irrigated. “And there need to be some more retirements of land to get us into a more balanced situation,” Sullivan said.

They defended Colorado’s practice of pumping more groundwater out of the aquifer, saying this is necessary to comply with the Republican River Compact. Disputes over river flows have risen as far as the U.S. Supreme Court and Colorado’s legal obligations to deliver water to Nebraska and Kansas are clear.

Solving the problem of the declining Ogallala aquifer: “It’s for the generation that’s not here” — Dwane Roth

The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

From The Hutchinson News (Amy Bickel):

Because of technology, [Dwane] Roth is working to embrace what might seem like an unfathomable concept in these parts – especially when you can’t see what is happening underground.

Sometimes the crop isn’t thirsty.

“It’s difficult to shut off,” Roth said. “But I called my soil moisture probe guy. He said the whole profile was full and it was only the top 2 inches that was actually dry. So there was no need to turn that irrigation engine on and pump from the Ogallala.”

Now he is hoping to change the mindset of his peers across a landscape where corn is king and the Ogallala Aquifer – the ocean underneath the High Plains – has been keeping the decades-old farm economy going on the semi-arid Plains.

At least it is for now.

Underlying eight states across the Great Plains, the Ogallala provides water to about one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle production in the United States. It’s also a primary drinking water supply for residents throughout the High Plains.

But the aquifer that gives life to these fields is declining. It took 6,000 years to fill the Ogallala Aquifer from glacier melt. It has taken just 70 years of irrigation to put the western Kansas landscape into a water crisis.

An economy centered on water is drying up.

With his own water levels declining, Roth wants to make sure there is water for the next generation, including his nephews who recently returned to the farm.

On this hot, summer day, water seeped out of a high-tech irrigation system he is testing on his Finney County farm. Soil probes are scattered about, telling him what is happening below the surface.

Roth also has pledged to the state to cut back his usage by 15 percent through changing farming practices and implementing new technology.

He wants to make a difference, but, he stressed, he can’t slow the decline alone.

For the past two years, Roth’s fields have been part of a closely watched demonstration project aimed at showing farmers how to use less irrigation water on their crops. Now he he is taking it a step further.

With some areas in northern Finney County declining by more than 70 feet since 2005, Roth is helping spearhead a regional effort to curtail pumping through a Local Enhanced Management Area. LEMAs were implemented five years ago as a tool to extend the life of the state’s water resources.

He’s not the only one looking toward the future. A small but growing group of irrigators are considering different tools to cutback water use. Some are implementing technology. Some are looking at LEMAs. Others are forming their own, farm-wide plans for mandatory cutbacks.

“It’s for the kids you don’t see yet,” Roth said of why he’s doing this. “It’s for the generation that’s not here.”

Ogallala aquifer via USGS