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.
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.
…But irrigation soon could end on [Brant] Peterson’s southwest Kansas farm. The wells under his land in Stanton County are fast running dry as farmers and ranchers across the Great Plains pump the Ogallala faster than it can be replenished naturally.
Three of his wells are already dry.
Within five years, Peterson estimates, he likely won’t be able to irrigate at all.
Wet and dry: A country divided
While the east half of the country generally receives at least 25 inches of rain a year, much of the west is dryer.
This means much of our country’s corn and hogs are farmed west of the 100th meridian. Meanwhile, in the Great Plains, milo, or grain sorghum, has become a popular crop due to its reduced need for water, and cattle farming has long been popular out west…
Western Kansas’ only significant water source is the Ogallala…
The vast freshwater reservoir beneath the prairie formed 5 million to 10 million years ago as streams draining from the Rocky Mountains deposited water in the clay, sand and gravel beneath the Great Plains.
The water lay there undisturbed for epochs until enterprising homesteaders who settled the West discovered the liquid bonanza that would make their arid land bloom.
Now, in a geological blink of an eye, the Ogallala, which made the Great Plains the nation’s breadbasket, is in peril…
The disappearing water supply poses a twofold danger. It could end a way of life in a region where the land and its bounty have been purchased by the toil and sweat of generations of farmers.
It also threatens a harvest worth $21 billion a year to Kansas alone and portends a fast-approaching, and largely unstoppable, water crisis across the parched American West.
With water levels already too low to pump in some places, western Kansas farmers have been forced to acknowledge that the end is near. That harsh reality is testing the patience and imagination of those who rely on the land for their livelihoods.
As they look for survival, farmers are using cutting-edge technologies to make the most efficient use of the water they have left. They’re contemplating something almost unimaginable just a generation ago: voluntary pacts with their neighbors to reduce irrigation.
And many are investing their long-term hopes in an astronomically expensive water transportation project that isn’t likely ever to be built.
The Arkansas River, which once flowed out of Colorado into western Kansas, is nothing but a dry ditch now, its riverbed reduced to a rugged obstacle course for all-terrain vehicles.
And average rainfall here is just 14 to 16 inches a year, nowhere near enough to replace the water that farmers draw from the Ogallala.
Kansas enjoyed a rainier-than-normal spring this year, easing several years of drought conditions throughout the state. But the relief is temporary.
The storms that soaked the state in recent months won’t alter the Ogallala’s fate, experts say…
Once emptied, it would take 6,000 years to refill the Ogallala naturally…
The Ogallala Aquifer supplies water for 20 percent of the corn, wheat, sorghum and cattle produced in the U.S.
It sprawls 174,000 square miles across eight states, from South Dakota to Texas, and can hold more than enough water to fill Lake Huron and part of Lake Ontario.
But for every square mile of aquifer, there’s a well. About 170,000 of them. Ninety percent of the water pumped out is used to irrigate crops…
Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to address the rapid decline of the aquifer. Water rights holders in much of western Kansas had to install flow meters in all their wells starting in the mid-1990s. Soon all wells in Kansas will have to be metered. And the state government has stopped issuing new permits to pump water from the Ogallala in areas of western Kansas where water levels have dropped the most.
Now, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has pledged to make water policy a central pillar of his administration. The final draft of his 50-year “water vision” for the state, released in January, outlines an incentive and education-based approach focused on encouraging voluntary, coordinated conservation efforts by the farmers who have the most to lose by the aquifer’s decline.
So far, however, farmers have agreed to limit water use in just part of two northwestern counties. A group of farmers in Sheridan and Thomas counties established a Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, in 2012 to cut water use by 20 percent over five years.
It seems to be working: In the first year, participants in the LEMA used about 2.5 inches less water for irrigation than their neighbors and produced just two bushels less per acre, on average.
A proposal to create another LEMA in west-central Kansas was voted down last year by water rights holders.
“The problem is everybody wants to be democratic, and you have people for and you have some people against,” said Bill Golden, an agricultural economist at Kansas State.
It isn’t easy to convince individuals to put their profits at risk to preserve a common resource, especially when some farmers have more water left than others, Golden said.
“But I think that we will probably see more LEMAs in the coming years,” he said. “That is the most acceptable answer. I mean, we’re going to run out of water. Nobody’s talking about saving the aquifer and not using the water. The question is, can we extend the life of the aquifer and make it a soft landing?”
For now, that leaves individual farmers making their own decisions about how best to manage water on their land.
Ten miles east of Peterson’s farm, in Grant County, Kan., Clay Scott parked his Dodge pickup on a country road and reached for his iPad.
A few hundred feet away, a solar panel planted in a field of wheat powered a probe that measures soil moisture at different depths.
Right now the probe told Scott’s iPad that he could hold off on watering the field. His sprinklers lay idle.
“People think that we waste our water out here,” Scott said, “and we just kind of grin because we work so hard to use that water.”
In addition to the soil moisture probes linked to his iPad, Scott consults satellites and radar data to track every shift in the weather and drop of rain that falls in his fields so he can minimize irrigation. He uses low-till techniques to preserve the soil and experiments with genetically engineered drought-resistant corn. He installed more efficient nozzles on his center-pivot sprinklers.
And he’s trying out a new device called a “dragon line,” which drags perforated hoses behind a center pivot to deposit water directly on the ground, reducing pooling and evaporation.
Scott’s version of high-tech farming would be unrecognizable to his great-grandfather, who homesteaded in nearby Stanton County around the turn of the century.
Still, despite all his efforts, Scott knows there will come a day – sooner rather than later if nothing is done – when irrigation is no longer viable in this part of Kansas.
The effects of the depleted aquifer already can be felt on Scott’s farm, where he’s had to reduce irrigation by 25 percent.
Some of his two dozen wells are pumping just 150 gallons per minute now, down from thousands of gallons per minute when they were first drilled. And as the water table drops, the energy costs of pumping from deeper underground have become higher than the cash rents Scott pays on the fields he leases.
“We’ve gone through periods where we re-drilled and tapped all but the very lowest water,” Scott said. “There are places we don’t pump the wells anymore.”
As an elected board member for the local Groundwater Management District, Scott hopes that he’ll be able to shape conservation policies that will enable his children to continue farming after him. He sees the situation in California, where the state has forced farmers to cut water use, as a cautionary tale. If farmers in Kansas don’t find ways to conserve enough water on their own, the state could enforce water rationing.
“I’ve got three boys, and a couple of them have already talked very seriously about coming back to the farm, and I’d like them to have the opportunity and ability that I’ve had to grow crops and livestock, even in a drought,” he said.
Scott’s long-term hopes rest in the construction of an $18 billion aqueduct that would import high flows off the Missouri River to water crops grown in western Kansas.
As conceived by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the concrete ditch would stretch 360 miles from east to west across Kansas with 16 lift stations and massive reservoirs on either end. The proposal was met with opposition – and not a little ridicule – by the legislature in Topeka, as state lawmakers struggled to close a $400 million budget hole.
“We’re not working on it at this point,” Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, said in an interview.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon dismissed the aqueduct as a “harebrained” scheme that would divert river water needed for barge traffic and municipal use.
But in western Kansas, it doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea.
“When they’re flooding in the Missouri River and cities are sandbagging, it sure seems to us like we have an answer to their problems,” Scott said. “Nobody wants to build a house and see it flooded; nobody wants to plant a field and watch it wither.”
Fervent support for the project speaks to the urgency felt by Scott, Peterson and other farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods and communities depend on irrigation. They’re hoping to convince the federal government to kick in funds for the aqueduct. And they’re looking into the possibility of building it through a public-private partnership, like a toll road. Farming cooperatives in California and Colorado have expressed interest in the project, they say, and want to explore extending it farther west.
A federal engineering bailout for western Kansas isn’t very likely, however.
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in an interview that such a costly project would be a nonstarter under Congress’ current budget caps.
“In all honestly, it’s a front-burner issue for folks in southwest Kansas, but to build that kind of aqueduct would be billions of dollars, and I just don’t think that’s feasible at this point,” Roberts said.
Barring the construction of an aqueduct, rural communities that depend on the Ogallala face a bleak future.
The state would have to cut its irrigated acres in half today to get anywhere close to sustainability, said Golden, the agricultural economist from Kansas State.
But it isn’t as simple as turning off the sprinklers.
“People survived out here on dryland farming. I can do it,” Peterson said, using the term “dryland” to refer to growing crops without irrigation. “Here’s the cost: My community is going to wither away.”
An irrigated field in southwest Kansas produces more than eight times more corn per acre on average than a field that isn’t irrigated, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Land values would drop. The loss of equity and tax base would mean fewer farmers and bigger farms, consolidated school districts, and impoverished towns with declining populations.
Like any economy dependent on mining a finite resource, this one is headed for a bust, and the farmers know it.
“We can’t wait another 30 years to get our policy right,” Scott said. “The drought in California is showing what living in denial can do.”
Keith Gido, professor in the Division of Biology; Josh Perkin, 2012 Kansas State University doctoral graduate; and several co-authors have published “Fragmentation and dewatering transform Great Plains stream fish communities” in the journal Ecological Monographs.
The article documents a reduction in water flow in Great Plains streams and rivers because of drought, damming and groundwater withdrawals. This is causing a decrease in aquatic diversity in Kansas from stream fragmentation — or stretches of disconnected streams.
“Fish are an indication of the health of the environment,” Gido said. “A while back there was a sewage leak in the Arkansas River and it was the dead fish that helped identify the problem. Children play and swim in that water, so it’s important that we have a good understanding of water quality.”
Several species of fish — including the peppered chub and the plains minnow — were found to be severely declining in the Great Plains during the ecologists’ field research, which compared historic records to 110 sampling sites in Kansas between 2011-2013. Both fish species swim downstream during droughts and return during normal water flow, but the construction of dams, or stream fragmentation, prevents fish from returning upstream.
“The Great Plains region is a harsh environment and drought has always been a problem. Historically, fish were able to recover from drought by moving,” Gido said. “They could swim downstream and when the drought was over, they could swim back. Now, there are dams on the rivers and the fish are not able to recover.”
Streams in the Great Plains region have more than 19,000 human-made barriers. Gido estimates that on average, stretches of streams in the Great Plains are about six miles long. In surveying Kansas’ streams and rivers, the researchers discovered numerous small dams that do not allow enough habitat for the fish to complete their reproductive cycles. Moreover, the fish are unable to migrate in search of suitable habitat.
“Groundwater extraction exasperates the drought, and the damming of the rivers inhibits the fish from being able to recover from those conditions,” Gido said. “This is unfortunate, but there are some things we can do to help.”
Gido suggested a renewed focus to conserve water, reduce dams and make fish passageways like the one on the Arkansas River under Lincoln Street in Wichita. During the planning for the reconstruction of the Lincoln Street Bridge and the dam over the river, the city worked with wildlife agencies to build a passage that would allow fish as well as canoes and kayaks to navigate through the structure.
Similar structures could be constructed on the Kansas River to help fish migrate.
“The plains minnow is still found in the Missouri River and could recolonize the Kansas River — where they used to be the most abundance species — if there was a fish passage through some of the dams.”
That theme of cooperation, including striking a balance between consumption and conservation, quickly rose to the surface Friday, as members of the whitewater, conservation and political communities met at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs to discuss the future of state water policy.
“To the best of our ability, we don’t want it to be West Slope against East Slope, “ said Heather Lewin, watershed action director for the Roaring Fork Conservancy. “We want to be working together to understand where water comes from, and how to use it most efficiently … so that we can do the best we can for the people who live here and for the environment.”
Members of the environmental group Conservation Colorado hosted the confab, which was set to coincide with Colorado River Day. The discussion largely revolved around local water issues and the recent release of the draft Colorado Water Plan. As water levels dwindle throughout the West, Colorado is formulating its first state water plan…
A benefit of the state effort is that many interest groups have gotten together to discuss the issue, creating new partnerships that before may never have been possible, said Kristin Green, Front Range field manager for Conservation Colorado.
“I think it’s important to recognize the diversity of holders we do have in this state, particularly in this area, that feel very direct effects from how we are managing our rivers,” she said. “Now more than ever we need to make sure all those different voices are being heard.”
More than 24,000 comments have been made concerning the draft water plan, and the public comment period doesn’t end until Sept. 17, Green said.
She noted that the second draft of the water plan begins to delve into potential solutions, and suggests a conservation goal of saving 400,000 acre feet by 2050. It’s the start of establishing the criteria officials may want to discuss, she said.
“There definitely was more meat on the bones,” Green said of the second draft…
Roaring Fork watershed increases quality of the Colorado
Lewin said that while the Roaring Fork River may be a small component of the overall Colorado River Basin, it still contributes around 1 million acre feet of water to the larger river each year.
She said the quality and quantity of that water can be very significant farther downstream in both an ecological sense and for its value to industries, municipalities and agriculture. But diversions strain that resource.
“Having high-quality water in the Roaring Fork makes a big difference of the water quality overall in the Colorado,” Lewin said.
She added that the river’s gold medal fishing designation is a huge economic boost to the valley. That lofty standard is met when there are at least 60 pounds of trout per acre of water, including at least 12 fish that are 14 inches or longer.
“That’s a lot of fat fish,” Lewin said. “But [keeping] those fish growing fat, healthy and swimming doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”
These conditions occur when a river or stream consists of clean water, and is home to an abundant insect population and a healthy riparian area. Lewin said surrounding riparian areas provide shade to cool river temperatures; food for aquatic creatures; erosion control; and help to filter pollutants.
“As you increase development, and as we diminish stream flows, riparian vegetation becomes one of the first things to really suffer,” she said. “So it’s hard to regenerate cottonwoods without overbanking flows. Cottonwoods are a key part to that riparian vegetation piece.”
Lewin said the recent wet spring led to the term “miracle May,” a month with a huge amount of precipitation that helped make up for a dry and warm winter. The heavy flows also helped to clear out sediment that built up in areas of the Roaring Fork.
“One of the biggest transmountain diversions out of the basin, the Independence Pass Tunnel, was shut down for nearly two months,” she said (that was because the East Slope had ample water supplies). “It just started operations about a week ago or so. By closing down that tunnel we were able to really see the full effects of the spring flushing flow and the benefits to the river.”
Lewin added that old oxbows in the North Star Nature Preserve east of Aspen were again filled with water this spring, putting the wetland area in a more natural state.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy has also engaged residents in the Crystal River Valley to work on addressing low stream flows. That effort has focused on looking at best practices to manage diversions and return flows, and studying the area’s physical features.
“We’re trying to see if we can use all of those pieces together in cooperation with the people who live on and around the river, and use that water to do the best we can for the Crystal,” Lewin said.
Dean Moffatt, a local architect, inquired about efforts to bestow the federal “Wild and Scenic” designation and its protections on the Crystal River.
“As an organization, we’re certainly supportive of the process,” Lewin replied. “We think that it’s really important and has the potential to be really beneficial.”[…]
‘No more water to give’
Aron Diaz, a Silt town trustee, said there’s a lot of interest among local leaders in the Colorado Water Plan.
“We’re really in a unique position and have the opportunity to craft Colorado’s water policy at the larger state level,” he said. “But we need to keep in mind how that affects the Western Slope.”
Diaz said the biggest point of concern is that Front Range basins are still adding placeholders, indicating that they may need more West Slope water to meet demands.
“We’re pretty tapped out for the amount of water that we have available to us,” he said. “Both with our obligations to stakeholders along the Colorado and those environmental, recreational, agricultural, industrial, municipal needs … as well as our downstream obligations with the compact, we’re really at the limit.”
There’s a need to set “achievable, but very aggressive conservation goals” to assure every avenue is studied before looking at new diversions, Diaz said. He urged the public to visit westslopewater.com to sign a petition that will be delivered to Gov. Hickenlooper and Colorado Water Conservation Board director James Eklund. It requests that no new diversions of water be made to the Front Range…
“The Western Slope in Colorado has no more water to give. We, the undersigned western Colorado residents, strongly urge you to oppose any new trans-mountain diversion that will take more water from the Western Slope of Colorado, as you develop Colorado’s Water Plan,” the petition states. “We cannot solve our state’s future water needs by simply sending more water east.”
FromThe Mountain Town News (Allen Best) via the Summit Daily News:
In Colorado, snowpack this winter was about average in the Blue River Basin, which is where Breckenridge, Keystone, and several other ski areas are located. “Everybody has Blue River envy,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, at a recent meeting covered by the Summit Daily News.
Blue River’s snowpack will soon fill Dillon Reservoir, one of the main reservoirs for metropolitan Denver. However, endangered fish in the Colorado River downstream near the Utah border won’t fare so well, because of less snowpack in the other tributary basins. Peak flows must be at least 12,900 cubic feet per second; they’re expected to peak at 9,600 cfs.
Taking a broader view, Kuhn sees this time in the 21st century as one of transition. “After 100 years of develop more, develop more, develop more, we’re going to have to cut back our uses.”
Kuhn pointed to the declining water levels in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two giant “buckets” on the Colorado River. “Bad things happen when Lake Mead and Lake Powell get drained,” he said, a distinct possibility in the next few years, particularly at Lake Mead.
What about building a pipeline to the Mississippi River or some other water-rich location? “To expect that we can export our problems to somebody else, I just don’t see that somebody else will willingly accept them,” he said.
HB15-1167 is up for hearing tomorrow in the House Agriculture, Livestock, & Natural Resources committee. The bill is the brainchild of J. Paul Brown representing District 59 down in southwestern Colorado. It would direct the CWCB to study the feasibility of new mainstem storage on the South Platte River downstream from Greeley. It also directs the CWCB to utilize existing studies of the possibility of pumping water from the Missouri River Basin back to Colorado. I suppose he’s talking about the USACE’s alternative to Aaron Million’s pipeline from the Green River or the Kansas Aqueduct project.
The bill calls out the Narrows Dam Project (650,000 AF) that was authorized by the US Congress but never built for a number of reasons, most of which would be faced by any new mainstem project.
Senator Sonnenberg shows up as the Senate sponsor.
Here’s what Representative Brown had to say on the subject in the Pagosa Daily Post:
My time in the legislature is challenging and exciting. I am working hard on my bills as well as keeping up on my committee bills and the bills that come to the floor. I actually have a little advantage over other legislators in that my apartment is half a block from the Capitol, so all of my time, when I am not sleeping, showering, or attending receptions, is spent reading and preparing for action on bills.
My number one issue is water storage and primarily storage in the South Platte drainage in Colorado. Why on the South Platte? Because that is the one drainage on the eastern side of Colorado that regularly has water that leaves the state that can legally be stored and used in Colorado. When I was in the legislature in 2011 and 2012 I started paying attention to the water in the South Platte Basin that was leaving the state. There were two years in particular where over 1,000,000 acre feet per year were wasted, another where 600,000 acre feet left the state, and even today there is excess water running out of the state that could be used to augment other water needs in Colorado. If we could store that water, it would help to satisfy the demand on the Front Range and relieve the need to send water from the Western Slope to the more populated Eastern side of the Continental Divide.
For the past many years I have been learning all I can about water, water law, water compacts with other states, and everything else related to water that I could possibly learn. I started at a young age when my parents were paid to measure the water at the Colorado/New Mexico state line on the La Plata River South of Hesperus, Colorado. On most early mornings before I caught the bus for school I would measure the amount of water in the river. That information was then relayed to the water authorities in both states where ditches were closed or opened depending on their priority. I have monitored Governor Hickenlooper‚s „water plan‰ and have attended as many Water Roundtable meetings as I could possibly make. I have attended the Colorado Water Congress meetings amongst the most knowledgeable water lawyers and providers in Colorado.
I still have much to learn.
Everywhere I go I have asked folks about storage on the South Platte. The more I have learned, the more it became evident that all of the information needed to make good decisions on where and how to store water was scattered in many different places. I decided that it was necessary to pull all of that information together and that the easiest way to do so is to run a bill. That bill is HB15- 1167. It will be heard in the House Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resources Committee upon adjournment on the 18th of February.
Western Kansas is heavily dependent on the Ogallala Aquifer. But since 1950, that ancient supply of underground water has been rapidly depleted by irrigation. That irrigation produces corn, which is fed to livestock to support the beef and, more recently, dairy industries, which are the foundation of the western Kansas economy. But water levels have dropped so low in parts of more than 30 counties that irrigation pumps can no longer be used there. That’s why rivers in western Kansas are little more than dry stream beds.
Mark Rude is tracking the depletion of the aquifer for a groundwater management district in the heart of the affected area.
“We’re only 9 percent sustainable with that 2 million acre-feet that we use in southwest Kansas,” Rude says. “And 9 percent sustainable is a very formidable number, because you can’t conserve your way out of that.”
In other words, 91 percent of the water currently being pumped would have to be shut off just to keep the aquifer from declining any more. But if the water doesn’t come from the aquifer, where could it come from? The 2011 flooding on the Missouri River gave Rude and others an idea about how to answer that question. While devastating to those along the river, the flood looked like an opportunity.
“Folks who realize the deep value of water in western Kansas looked at that and go, ‘Wow, if we only had a couple days of that flow we could fill the aquifer, and we’d all be happy,’” Rude says.
Rude looked into that idea, and rediscovered the 1982 study proposing a system to capture excess water from the Missouri River and store it in a huge, new lake near White Cloud in the northeastern corner of the state. It would then be pumped uphill through an aqueduct to western Kansas. There it would be stored in another new lake — by far the largest in the state — for distribution.
The cost was estimated at $1,000 per acre-foot of water delivered. With that price tag, the concept was dead on arrival. But recently, the Kansas Water Office told the committee charged with updating the old study that the cost is now closer to $500 per acre-foot. The savings are due to lower interest rates. Cost is a concern for committee member Judy Wegener-Stevens, but it’s not the only reason she’s opposed to the project.
“I don’t feel an aqueduct should be built,” Wegener-Stevens says. “I feel that people in western Kansas have been pumping water unconditionally, without any rules, for 40 years, and they have not used their resource very well.”
Wegener-Stevens, who lives in White Cloud, said the nearby Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska would fight a proposed aqueduct. They have rights to water in the Missouri River and are working to quantify those rights. There might also be objections from other states, even though the idea is to take only “excess” water. Throw in anticipated battles over property rights and environmental concerns, and some committee members say the aqueduct still doesn’t appear realistic.
But committee member Clay Scott isn’t willing to give up on the idea. Three generations of his family raise cattle and grow irrigated corn and wheat near Ulysses, in southwest Kansas. Scott points to an Arizona aqueduct called the Central Arizona Project as proof that a Kansas aqueduct is feasible. He says a reliable source of water is vital to the future of his family’s farm.
“I’ve got three boys that are looking to maybe come back to the farm, but, you know, it takes a lot of acres in western Kansas to support a family — especially coming through these last three years of drought,” Scott says. “It’s a challenge to tell your boys that there’s an opportunity. There’s a future for you here.”
Scott and other members of the advisory committee say the first priority should be some sort of compact with other states and Indian tribes to secure rights to Missouri River water. Then they can worry about all the other obstacles to the project. Earl Lewis, the assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, agrees with that approach.
“Moving forward and investing considerable time and funds into pursuing a project that doesn’t have the legal security of a water right or some kind of compact doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Lewis says.
Even if the Missouri River doesn’t pan out as a water source, Lewis says there may be other options. State law could be changed to make it easier to transfer surplus water to western Kansas from other parts of the state. And Kansas may be able to get some financial help from Colorado, in exchange for providing water to ease shortages on the Front Range. But it will be up to others to explore those options and others. The advisory committee’s charge was solely to update the aqueduct study and make recommendations. Those recommendations are due by the end of January.