With his wells declining, Kansas farmer tries new approach
September 27, 2017
HOLCOMB, Kan. (AP) — On a 100-degree day in July, Dwane Roth could see his neighbors' irrigation pivots pumping water to the corn fields around him.
A handful of years ago, he had the same mentality. In a climate where rain comes sparingly, he translated his high-yielding corn and economic vitality to the need to continually water the crop. So rain or shine in the heat of summer, his irrigation systems would churn out water from the shrinking underground reserve by the gallons. He'd wake up some mornings and look out across the horizon and the lights on the pivots — knowing they were running.
"It was a mental game," the Finney County farmer said. "You got to keep the damn pivot running."
But amid a recent four-day stretch of triple digits — hot enough his corn leaves were rolling up, Roth did something unusual for the region.
He turned some of his irrigation systems off.
Because of technology, 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."
The Ogallala is the liquid gold behind one of the nation's most productive farming economies.
At first, people didn't think the water would run out. Seven decades later, the damage has been done. Too many wells have been drilled. Each year marks deeper declines and wells going dry.
The declining water table has been on Roth's mind since he returned from the Army to farm.
National Geographic featured a neighbor of Roth's - farmer Rodger Funk - in the early 1990s, talking about the declining water table. Funk would eventually shut down most of his water wells, transitioning to dryland farming.
"Ever since then, I have been intrigued by it, curious about it," said Roth of the decline.
His own farm sits in a region of high declines. It's not unusual for wells to drop 10 feet in a year. One area in northern Finney County has dropped more than 70 feet in a span of 10 years.
At one of their meetings, a local feedlot owner told of how they had reduced some pens of cattle because they were running out of water.
"During the 2011 and 2012 drought, there were times we continuously renozzled pivots," Roth said. "We'd be pumping 700 gallons then we'd nozzle for 600 and then 500."
"The responsibility lies with us," Roth said. "No one else will solve our problems for us."
Call to action
According to Kansas researchers, if Kansans continue down the current path, the state's water resources could be nearly spent in 50 years and roughly 70 percent of western Kansas' Ogallala Aquifer would be depleted by 2064.
Some say the situation is even more dire than that.
Considering those estimates, Gov. Sam Brownback has made water one of his top priorities since taking office, with his staff developing a plan to sustain the state's water resources. State officials are working to implement the plan that includes stringent goals with targets, said Lane Letourneau, with the state Agriculture Department's Division of Water Resources.
LEMAs are one of the water-saving measures. Brownback advocated for the tool during a tour in July, touting the success of the state's first and only LEMA, located in Sheridan County in northwest Kansas.
It was about a decade ago that farmers in the Sheridan 6 LEMA area sat at the table and began developing a plan. Their water wells were dropping a few feet a year. They wanted to make sure there was enough water for the next generation. The Kansas Legislature authorized the concept, which went into effect in 2013.
The LEMA is a balance between stringent state authority and local control. Farmers voluntarily came together to agree to a set cutback — in this case 20 percent — over a five-year period. However, after it is implemented, the plan does have teeth and is enforced by the state's chief water engineer.
Now, in its fifth year of the plan, the Sheridan 6 area saw a rise in the water table in year four while areas outside the LEMA have dropped, Letourneau said.
Sheridan's success has spurred other efforts across the western half of Kansas. Three other LEMAs are being considered, he said. For instance, after an impairment claim by Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, irrigators along the Rattlesnake Creek in south-central Kansas' Groundwater Management District No. 5 are in discussions about a LEMA to help restore water to the wetlands.
Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, said he had hoped there would be more LEMAS in place by now, but noted Sheridan 6 has set a precedent that conservation does work and stays within each operation. Because of that, a number of individuals are forging their own paths for water conservation.
More than a dozen offshoots of the LEMA, called Water Conservation Areas, have been formed by single irrigators or small groups. WCAs have similar cutbacks and water carryover flexibility but don't involve the groundwater management district.
"It's just here in the last year that things have exploded with the water conservation areas," Streeter said. "We've got a lot of people talking about them, and that is exciting."
Letourneau said southwest Kansas has another 23 WCAs in the works. Meanwhile, irrigators in other states are looking at Kansas as an example.
In a Republican River Compact meeting in August, a farmer in Kit Carson County, Colorado, stood up, telling the Letourneau and the group he respected Kansas' forward-thinking approach to water.
"He appreciated the LEMA," Letoureanu said, adding a group of Colorado farmers are now looking into the program as a collective way to cut back water use.
After a meeting with a landlord in 2015, Roth began thinking of ways he could be more efficient with his water use. A year later, he was one of a handful across the state to establish a Water Technology Farm — the demonstration farm that showcases various irrigation technologies to maintain production with reduced water usage.
The idea of the LEMA came while he was sitting at the governor's annual water conference last November, listening to leaders talk about the success of Sheridan 6 irrigators. Using his farm as an example of what technology and practices could be implemented, Roth began leading a LEMA effort.
Roth and a steering committee of about a dozen farmers have been meeting several times this spring and summer, looking at an area north of the Arkansas River in Finney and Kearny counties - a roughly 200-square-mile region. They have had community meetings telling irrigators, landowners and others about how cutbacks would extend the life of the Ogallala.
Monte Miller is one of those interested farmers who is working on his own conservation plan for the future. His son and a son-in-law are the fourth generation to farm..
"I think something needs to be done — it's either race to the finish or if we don't do anything," he said. "Let's try to sustain it."
But not all see it that way. While some have jumped on board with the idea of implementing new technology and making cutbacks to their allocations, others are dragging their feet — concerned about how it will impact their farm, property valuations and bottom line.
And if they participate, they want to make sure their neighbor is, as well.
That's been the challenge in formulating a plan, said Miller. Everyone has different farms, different ways of farming, different crops they grow. Miller and Roth can utilize surface water from a more than century-old ditch system dug by farmers before the advent of irrigation wells. Not all have those water rights, however.
"You get a bunch of people together and they all have different thoughts," said Miller, but added it comes down to one objective. "We need to take what we have and make it better.
There is only one way to extend the aquifer's life, Streeter said.
"If our objective is to extend the life or flatten the rate of decline or maybe even have areas that are sustainable, you have to make a reduction of actual water use for that to happen," he said. "The other option — continue what you are doing and go dryland sooner. There certainly would be a change in property tax, and it would be much more abrupt."
Roth continues to move forward on his own farm. He implemented a water conservation area, cutting back 15 percent in his water use. He is trying different methods to get to that point, including lower plant populations, changing crop rotations and trusting the data that the moisture sensors give him about what is going on underground.
He and others on the steering committee work to educate — calling their neighbors to spread the word about conserving the resource and what a possible LEMA could do for the future for sustainabilty.
But he admitted, in his field where water technology is spiraling, some are unwilling to change.
"We have some people who aren't absolutely going to do it," he said. "They are going to pump every ... damn drop."
Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, http://www.hutchnews.com