Can Kansas find a way to maintain its water supply? Lawmakers are searching for answers amid drought in western US

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Mark Rude, right, addresses the Kansas House Committee on Water on Wednesday in Garden City. Policymakers are weighing the best way to ease Kansas' water problems in light of drought conditions hitting the western United States.

Titus Jaeger and his ancestors have worked in agriculture in western Kansas since the 1920s.

That has meant hard times — his family persevered through the so-called "Dirty Thirties," when drought ran rampant across western Kansas. And they've had to cope with worse dry periods during the 1950s and early 2000s.

Even still, he wants his children to be the fifth-generation of Jaegers to farm in western Kansas — if the environment can make that happen.

Water has always been a key issue for state policymakers. But climate change and decades of water-intensive farming have prompted urgent, existential questions for the state.

"We’re the USA, we landed on the moon — surely we can bring water to this part of the world," Jaeger told members of the House Water Committee during a hearing Wednesday. "Out here, where we live, to me it is God’s country. I look out my window in the morning and it is as close to heaven as you can get.

"But I want you to know, we are as close to hell out here as it can get, too. We’ve been through drought, we’ve been through tough times."

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A draft copy of the state's water plan, released once every five years, lays bare the problem in stark terms.

"It is not an overstatement to say that the future of habitability in much of western Kansas is at stake," the plan reads, mere pages into the 200-plus page document. 

Jaeger, who works on conservation issues and is a representative on a regional water advisory committee, said he has seen the issues firsthand over the years. He noted the Arkansas River has lost streamflow between Garden City and Dodge City in his lifetime — and experts agree more extreme fallout could occur if action isn't taken.

"We must move from a scarcity mentality to an abundance mentality," Jaeger said. "Change is inevitable. Growth is optional, progress is optional, adaptation is optional, survival is optional. What will we choose?"

Experts worry climate change will worsen water conditions

Drought has been a persistent problem in 2021, with not a drop in sight for large swaths of the western United States. For the first time ever, the federal government has declared a water shortage in the Colorado River, a key source for millions of residents throughout the southwest.

It is expected that climate change will worsen these extreme weather events, putting Kansas in a precarious position of being at risk for flooding and drought in the years to come.

The 2021 draft water plan quickly notes these risks.

While the last version of the state's water policy blueprint, written in 2014 under Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, argued "there is continuing disagreement about the degree to which human activity has been responsible for change" the newest version mentions the threat in the first few pages, noting extreme weather events are "more intense and less predictable" because of climate change factors.

Photos show drought conditions in California. Kansas, as well as much of the western part of the United States, has experienced low rainfall for part or all of the summer of 2021.

Zach Pistora, lobbyist for the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, noted this was a refreshing move for the state's water blueprint.

But given the widespread nature of the problem nationally, he argued smaller policy steps won't get the job done in light of the challenges posed by climate change.

He pointed to proposals to shift water from the Missouri River or water sources out of state to western Kansas as "Band-Aids on addressing the real problem."

"It's a tragedy of the commons if each of us is out there pouring more water than we probably should, when we think about it from a collective perspective," Pistora said.

Water management most acute in ag-heavy western Kansas

The water issue is a statewide one, experts underscore, but it is perhaps at its most acute in western Kansas.

The region is powered by the Ogallala Aquifer, which spans a half-dozen states and at 174,000 square miles is one of the world's largest aquifers. While its tentacles stretch into south-central Kansas, it is most critical for supporting western Kansas agriculture. That same industry, however, is was is sapping the Ogallala dry.

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Not all farmers rely on irrigation. But corn, the most commonly grown crop on the high plains, is water intensive and is in large part responsible for up to 5.58 million acre-feet of water per year — the amount necessary to help farmers irrigate their fields.

Ever since irrigation began in earnest, the Ogalalla has seen a decline in its groundwater levels. That trend has accelerated in recent years, depleting half the supply in some parts of western Kansas.

If current pumping trends continue, the updated state water plan warns, "projections in some areas show no more than 20 years of water remaining" and some parts of the region have already "passed the point of no return."

"We want to have a vibrant economy, not a dry land economy," said Mark Rude, director of a regional entity in southwest Kansas charged with water management.

Bill Golden, a Kansas State agriculture professor, talks about water usage in a legislative House Water Committee hearing in Garden City. Golden's work has focused on helping farmers maximize profit and limit water use.

Efforts have been sparked to balance the need for farmers to make money with a push to move toward more sustainable practices. Federal programs pay farmers to move parts of their land toward grassland or other good conservation practices. Academic institutions and private firms have developed more efficient irrigation strategies using modern technology.

And cotton has been mooted as a potential crop to replace corn, as it is similarly profitable but uses half the water.

"We’re getting very serious about cotton in this area," said Bill Golden, a Kansas State University researcher who studies the economics of water in farming.

Local management plans help farmers save water, make money

In parts of western Kansas, however, local residents have taken things a step forward.

Once considered a radical concept, farmers and community members have increasingly agreed to voluntary reductions in water usage, which are enshrined in a formal plan and submitted to local and state entities. The goal is balancing local control over water with the understanding that something has to give.

The practice, dubbed local enhanced management areas, has grown in many western Kansas counties. In Sheridan County, the first LEMA in the state, the goal was to reduce water usage by 20%. Instead, residents nearly doubled that conservation goal.

Bret Oelke's farm sits in Hoxie, with land inside and outside that LEMA. Like many farmers who have participated in the program, he found an economic benefit to conservation by reducing his irrigation costs.

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"Everybody was nervous," Oelke said. "But at the end of the day, we actually came out on our farm making more money inside the LEMA than we did outside the LEMA. ... We've now actually adopted what we learned inside the LEMA to our irrigation wells outside the LEMA to increase our whole farm profitability across the whole scale."

Residents in Wichita County first began pondering a LEMA about 10 years ago, Leoti farmer Ferrin Watt said, but it finally got off the ground this year. He said it is too early to quantify results but said the long-term effects of a smaller federal water conservation grant have been clear, with savings about 20% higher than expected.

"Our water has just been declining at too rapid a rate," he said. "I think we all carry some responsibility for the problem. And I think we all have thought 'If we just ignore this, (the problem) will go away.' Well, it is water and it is going away. But we were wrong in how we handled this — we should have started quicker."

Water issues, drought also hit eastern Kansas

Such reservoirs as Perry Lake, pictured here, are considered vital to water management in eastern Kansas.

But water is also a pressing issue in eastern Kansas, even though the nature of that problem is quite different.

In contrast to western Kansas, the eastern part of the state leans on reservoirs, mostly managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for its water supply needs. These reservoirs — like Lake Perry and Lake Clinton — have other benefits as well. They are popular recreation areas and also provide a key buffer against flooding — particularly important in eastern Kansas where many residents don't carry flood insurance.

But reservoirs are increasingly subject to their own set of problems. More soil is running off into the rivers and streams that feed the reservoir's supply, meaning this process of sedimentation is creating less water capacity.

"The reservoirs we count on to have room in them, to help prevent damage from floods and the reservoirs we count on to store water in times of drought — the capacity of our reservoirs has shrunk dramatically because of the increase in sedimentation," said Connie Owens, director of the Kansas Water Office.

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And then there is the fact that the Missouri River, which supplies much of the supply for the reservoirs in eastern Kansas, is under drought conditions itself.

Runoff, or the amount of discharge feeding local streams and rivers, is at an all-time low in parts of the upper Missouri River basin, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. About 75% of the entire basin, running from eastern Kansas all the way to Montana, is experiencing some form of a drought.

Owens noted northern states have already begun giving notice that water supply may be affected in the weeks and months to come.

"Things are looking really serious for the area we rely on to get water," she said.

‘We need actions, not just words’

Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, chairs a House Water Committee hearing Wednesday in Garden City. Lawmakers are expected to debate and form recommendations on water policy in coming months.

Addressing these issues will likely require a commodity often more scarce than water: money.

Consistently funding water management efforts has been a challenge in recent years. The state's water plan hasn't been adequately funded since 2008, said Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, resulting in a $70 million shortfall.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has a limited groundwater monitoring program, largely due to funding constraints, and money to address regional groundwater issues has been scarce until recent years.

Over $2 million in funding was quickly put to use tracking toxin buildup in western Kansas streams, with researchers finding some homes with uranium levels over twice the recommended limit in their water.

Legislators and stakeholders broadly agree there is a need to supply more funding to tackle the problem. The question, however, is where it comes from.

While there is hope a bipartisan infrastructure plan moving through Congress might provide some funds, Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, chair of the House Water Committee, said it wouldn't get the job done.

"Everyone knows we don’t have the money," Highland said. "It is not there. We cannot raise taxes ... to the magnitude we need to to address the problem."

But Pistora, the Sierra Club lobbyist, said front-end investment would prevent bigger issues from cropping up and requiring even more costly solutions. He pointed to the dredging of multiple reservoirs in Kansas, a short-term solution he said wouldn't free up much capacity but would cost a pretty penny.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right?" he said.

Lawmakers on the House Water Committee are set to weigh potential policy responses, with a set of recommendations to the full legislature to follow by the time lawmakers return to Topeka for the annual legislative session.

Pistora said the time for bold action was now, arguing the committee needed to live up to its mandate and follow through on the proposals laid out in the latest water plan.

"We've had incremental increases in funding for the State Water Plan, but we haven't had the the appropriate level of funding or action that's needed to really turn the corner on this," Pistora said. "I'm kind of internally hopeful about this, because we need to do it. And I think where there's a will, there's a way. But at the same time, we need people to walk the talk.

"We need actions, not just words. We need budget increases. We need sacrifice."