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Water Vision discussion helps producers give input

By Kylene Scott

Stakeholders and landowners had the opportunity to learn about the Water Vision set forth by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback at a meeting in Ulysses, Kan., Jan. 8. Facilitated by the Southwest Kansas Irrigation Association and the Southwest Kansas Corn Growers Association, speakers from the Kansas Water Office, Kansas Department of Agriculture, Kansas Geological Survey, Division of Water Resources and various groundwater management districts updated the full house meeting on tools available to them. Breakout sessions helped speakers get feedback from attendees.

“The state has helped develop these (tools), along with the groundwater management districts,” Kirk Heger, Southwest Kansas Irrigation Association, said. “What they’re going to put up there are examples. There’s no proposals being made from the state at this meeting. This is our meeting and one of the main objectives of this meeting is to get feedback from this group.”

Sue Schulte with the Kansas Corn Growers Association stressed the importance of participation by giving feedback.

“You know one of the things I think is really important and one of our goals is to make sure our growers are informed and also very engaged in this issue,” Schulte said. “Basically I just want to encourage you all to listen to all the different presentations this morning and then also really think about these issues, and be ready to provide input. If not today, you know, over the next couple of months on some of the solutions you see as possible.”

Schulte encouraged producers to not be afraid to speak up and really participate in the process.

Kansas Water Office Director Tracy Streeter said back in October 2013, Brownback challenged his office as well as the Kansas Department of Agriculture and Kansas Water Authority to develop a 50-year vision for water in Kansas.

“The vision is like you might expect, is something that’s statewide—30,000-foot look at our water resources,” Streeter said. “It’s not just about the Ogallala either. It’s about our system of reservoirs in eastern Kansas as well, where we’ve seen drastic reductions of storage due to sedimentation in our federal reservoirs.”

Besides the work with the aquifer and the reservoirs, there is more to the vision process, Streeter said, and they are working on other things that deal with Kansas water.

“We’ve been talking conservation of this resource better than 30 years,” Streeter said. “We’ve tried incentives for efficiency improvement. We had water right retirement, and now because of the 2012 Legislature when Gov. Brownback came into office, we came up through his leadership with some new policy—including the multi-year flex accounts.”

Streeter described several new tools available for use but left the specifics for speakers later in the meeting.

“There are some new tools that are available for the local stakeholders to take hold of and use, and that’s primarily what this was about today was to look at aquifer conditions in your community and decide if these tools make sense for you,” Streeter said.

Streeter encouraged stakeholders and landowners to give input where officials should go with the aquifer.

“What’s the vision of the Ogallala from your perspective?” Streeter said. “As you also know it’s highly variable. It’s highly variable in southwest Kansas from county to county, so the strategies and the things that we chose to do are going to be based on the vision where you live and where you irrigate crops.”

Drought conditions have not been kind to southwest Kansas and a lot of the surrounding areas, and Streeter said, using the aquifer to keep the agriculture industry running is something every one is aware of.

“We’ve known for a long time we’re taking water out of this aquifer quicker than we can put it back in by quite a margin, so we’re mining the aquifer,” Streeter said. “And we know how many years of usable life we have in the various areas, and so the whole policy at the state level has always been about not leveling off and sustaining anything, it’s serving and sustaining the life of the aquifer.”

The value of water in the last 10 years has gone up significantly, and there’s really no indication that’s going to change anytime soon.

“So as the value of this water increases over time I think it increases our need to find ways to conserve and extend that resource so we have that value later,” Streeter said. “But that’s up to you to decide how to do that. And I want to emphasize that today. We’re not out here today to roll out some grand plan in Topeka, and that’s not what the governor’s vision is all about either.”

Streeter and Jackie McClaskey, acting Kansas Secretary of Agriculture, were both instructed by Brownback to go out and talk with people and get all the input they could into what the state could be doing.

“As you decide what you want to do in your community, what do we need to do to make you successful?” Streeter said. “Whether it’s the local enhanced management areas we currently have, research on sorghum; is it incentives to do different things. We need to hear from you on what you think of the vision—where you want to be in 50 years as an irrigator, and where do you want this aquifer to be in 50 years, and what can we do to help you be successful.”

Streeter is aware the path that Kansas’ water is currently on is not a very good one.

“In the last few years, that path’s been steeper than we like it to be,” Streeter said. “Drought has sent us into some declines that we didn’t think were possible, and I know that you have seen some things on your farms perhaps that you didn’t anticipate because of this drought.”

Brownie Wilson from the Kansas Geological Survey demonstrated the groundwater management model. Although he didn’t go into too much detail, he stressed the power of the tools available.

“I don’t want to get into too much detail and nitty-gritty specifics, but I’m going to show you a lot of information because I want you to get an idea of how robust some of these groundwater models can be,” he said. “But I also want you to get an idea of what they are and are not. They are pretty powerful tools, but they’re not the end all, be all.”

Wilson said the groundwater models are computer programs that allow users to simulate natural aspects of the groundwater with equations and maps.

“I like to use the analogy of a water calculator,” Wilson said. “You take a number and stick it in the equation and it gives you out a numerical output. A groundwater model works exactly the same way, except its inputs and outputs are water.”

Users of the program have inflows and outflows going into the model, and then it gives back water level information and stream flow information.

“The difference between this and that additional math is that we build it to calculate. We have rules to operate and we tell it how to function,” Wilson said.

One of the advantages of the groundwater model is conditions can be changed to give “what if” scenarios to see what happens if something changes.

“What if we had more than one river? What if it started to rain more? What if it started to get drier? What if it started to get hotter? What happens? That’s one of the advantages of having a groundwater model,” Wilson said.

The tool also allows estimations as what would happen if there were reductions in pumping but precipitation patterns stay the same. One model showed gains to the groundwater.

“Again, you have to understand the way the model is built. There’s good areas and other don’t not so hot,” Wilson said. “These are great tools that you can bounce your ideas off of in terms of a management plan and things like that.”

The groundwater management tool is a great tool to have at a producers’ disposal, he said.

Discussion about local enhanced management areas and other alternatives was lead by David Barfield of the Kansas Division of Water Resources.

“Obviously all of you know the Ogallala is a vast but not inexhaustible resource, but it’s been a tremendous benefit, and will continue to be a tremendous benefit to the economies of western Kansas for some time to come,” Barfield said. “That said, it’s a resource that’s in decline. There’s substantially more pumping than recharge, and therefore decline of that resource will continue, and so the question is we’ve long since discontinued new development.”

The problem is not getting worse, but landowners and stakeholders need options for dealing with the ongoing de-watering of the aquifer, and the increasing shortages and conflicts that result from that.

“In my view, there’s sort of four big picture alternatives, and these are not mutually exclusive,” Barfield said. “We can be doing most of these at the same time or different ones in different areas, but sort of the big picture what our options are, the status quo essentially letting to water right limitations, pumping decisions determine where we go and just everybody adjust to the reality as we move forward. That’s obviously one option.”

Another option is water right administration, and there are pretty good conflicts where there is insufficient water for all the water rights. A third option is called intensive groundwater control areas. It was passed in 1978 and provides tools for managing the groundwater challenges. The fourth option, local enhanced management areas or LEMAs, is one tool Barfield spent time discussing.

The LEMA plan came through Senate Bill 310 of the 2012 Kansas Legislature. It gave groundwater management districts the authority to initiate a public hearing process to consider a specific conservation plan to meet local goals.

“The LEMAs are the new kid on the block,” Barfield said.

Locals involved in the LEMA process have a lot to consider when deciding on the program. Goals, reductions and future life after the program runs its course are all important deciding factors. The same goes for the downfalls of the program—boundary lines, control provisions and other different options.

“It’s got different provisions and so there’s actually quite a few different options that are allowed. Allocation—basically limiting the amount of water per water right, number of inches per acre, those sorts of things. How much flexibility do you want to afford?” Barfield said.

One of the advantages of LEMAs is they are typically about reducing use to extend the aquifer but even bring more flexibility to complete.

“They look at multi-year allocations—to get a block of water that you can manage over a five-year or six-year period. And often, more flexibility—every irrigated acre is designed with allocation. LEMAS can afford the flexibility to move your allocation around so that you can put your water, even though it’s more limited, to the maximum beneficial use,” Barfield said.

But managing groundwater is important, and local residents, landowners and stakeholders all often come up with the solutions that make the most sense, Barfield said.

“I think local solutions are going to be the best solutions,” he said. “LEMA provides the tools for you to look at those options. A lot of hard work is required of the consensus and I think we as a state agency, Department of Ag, the Water Office, Kansas Geologic Survey are available to assist you as you need.”

For more information about the Water Vision and to see future meeting dates, visit

Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by email at

Date: 1/27/2014


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