Kansas neighbors preserve water differently

After slogging around for thousands of years among deep soil, sand and rocks, waves of groundwater rose to grace the High Plains for nearly a century.

The life-giving liquid, however, is much less abundant these days.

Saving it is a high priority in portions of several regions where food production is of monumental importance to economies on several levels.

How it’s done varies across state lines, but goals are the same in western Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, and other regions—to prosper with less water.

“The growers and irrigators in Oklahoma have made a lot of improvement and steps toward being more efficient with water,” said Russell Isaacs, who farms in Beaver County, Oklahoma, and serves as president of the Panhandle Irrigators Association.

Oklahoma’s irrigation is regulated by the state’s water resources board. Attempts to reach officials there were unsuccessful.

In Oklahoma, landowners claim the water they pump from their land, he said.

“That changed a long time ago in Kansas, but we’re all in the same boat in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska,” Isaacs said. “We’re having to learn for our area.”

Nebraska formed 23 Natural Resource Districts nearly a half century ago. NRDs have the authority to impose regulations aimed at saving the resource, said Nate Jenkins, assistant manager of the Upper Republican NRD. It has had limited groundwater withdrawals for irrigation since 1979 in the district, which covers Perkins, Chase and Dundy counties in southwestern Nebraska.

“We were lucky that our board and a lot of irrigators felt like that was the right thing to do, really to sustain the economy of the area long term,” he said. “It revolves almost solely around groundwater irrigation.”

With rapid irrigation development in the 1970s, water tables were dropping at an alarming rate, Jenkins said, pulling from NRD history.

Groundwater declines have turned out to be about 60% less than what the U.S. Geological Survey predicted they would be without regulations.

“They have lessened the rate of groundwater declines pretty significantly,” Jenkins said. “It’s quite possible that some areas today would not have enough water to fully irrigate, and some would not be able to irrigate at all.”

The NRD was blessed to have irrigators who understood the big picture, he said, and gave their economy a future.

“The biggest thing we did was educate the people. There has been a pretty good attitude. We haven’t had a whole lot of resistance,” said Terry Martin, chairman of the Upper Republican NRD board. He farms in both Kansas and Nebraska.

“They realized how much crop they could raise and keep the Ogallala Aquifer alive,” he said. “The biggest concern is the economy in southwest Nebraska. Money from irrigated crops is where most of the money comes from here, and the economy right now is really strong.”

Irrigating farmers adopted technology, such as soil monitoring, to help put the water where it’s most needed most.

Isaacs and others are aware of the Local Enhanced Management Areas in Kansas, but nothing like that exists in Oklahoma. Still, Isaacs is proud of what he and fellow producers have accomplished.

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“The growers and the irrigators in Oklahoma have made a lot of improvements and steps toward being more efficient with water,” he said. “We’ve changed crops and ways we irrigate, and we’re starting to implement soil moisture probes. We’re pumping less and raising more. It’s all been on a private scale.”

Studies have shown an increase in production, Isaacs said.

One way he cut water consumption was by not raising irrigated wheat.

“Those wells don’t have to pump in November, December, January and February; just for summer crops,” he said. “We probably cut (pumping) by more than a third. You do that on a large number of wells and it makes a big difference in an area.”

Panhandle Irrigators is not a regulating agency, Isaacs said, “just an association to protect private property rights.”

They employ a lobbyist at the state capitol in Oklahoma City, who keeps members updated.

“We want to be involved in conversations at the state level whenever they’re writing water policy,” Isaacs said. “We feel like we’re experts of what we do, and we want to be invited to the table for discussion.”

Nebraska producers learned last decade that the Ogallala Aquifer and rivers don’t acknowledge state lines, Martin said, referring specifically to a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case over stream flow in the Republican River.

Ramifications could have wrecked economies in the region, but Colorado and Nebraska developed projects that eventually alleviated the issue.

Four NRDs in western Nebraska spent a combined $136 million to augment stream flows for downstream water users, Martin said.

“Nebraska was going to have to shut down 300,000 acres of irrigation in order to comply. Kansas was right,” he said. “We all agreed on a solution and it’s worked out pretty well for us.

“We’re pretty happy with the working relationships that developed with the other states. We all have to work as a team.”