KC Journal: In dealing with the Ogallala Aquifer, western Kansas is running out of water and time

In western Kansas, painful losses feel increasingly imminent. There’s literal loss – the essentially irreversible depletion of Ogallala Aquifer groundwater after the large-scale pumping of it to irrigate crops in recent decades. But there are also the economic losses that might follow and hurt more and more farmers, their families, businesses and communities across the region in the decades to come.

Approaches to dealing with that pain strongly diverge. Some want to avert loss by transferring water from elsewhere, maintaining an economic system and a way of life. Others want to manage it by imposing pumping limits that might extend the life of the aquifer but could also make thriving more challenging for farmers in the near-term. Still others seem to prefer to defer any pain by simply making the best use of the groundwater that’s left.

How do the people of Kansas decide which route to take? That’s where things get even more complicated. There’s nearly as much disagreement about how to respond to the situation as there is about what to do in response. While one portion of the region has made progress in setting water use limits, another is struggling to gain support for any alternative to the status quo. State officials are encouraging change, but they’re certainly not trying to mandate it. Irrigators on different sides of the divide increasingly find themselves in conflict.

This is hardly a new phenomenon.

As Kansans, we’ve always fought about water. We’ve fought about irrigation ditches, water wells, storm runoff, tailwater pits and oilfield pollution. We’ll fight for water for creatures great and small, from whooping cranes to small minnows. As Colorado and Nebraska can attest, we’ll fight over water we only wish we had.

Between rounds, we’ve built Wichita’s Big Ditch for flood control, survived the Big Dam Foolishness controversy over Tuttle Creek Dam and turned Greensburg’s Big Well into a tourist attraction. For the bare-knuckle variety of these fights, no area of the state holds more potential than the west, where the Ogallala Aquifer was tapped to make up for a lack of rainfall. It’s a resource that not only has transformed western Kansas agriculture, but it’s also altered the state’s political and financial landscapes.

The Ogallala may be huge, but its capacity is finite. For decades, decision-makers in Topeka had some ideas about how to manage the aquifer, but those thoughts all had one thing in common: To make the water last longer – and avoid economic calamity – someone would have to agree to pump less and take the economichit. Few rushed to volunteer.

But the passage of time has changed some outlooks, redrawing battle lines.

Instead of just fighting over who gets to use water, we’re increasingly in conflict over who doesn’t get to use it and who decides that. Throughout western Kansas, some of the state’s largest irrigators, with help from a 2012 law that allows the establishment of local limits through Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs) within Groundwater Management Districts, are pushing for significant reductions in the amount of water being drawn from the Ogallala and getting pushback from neighboring irrigators who either don’t want to limit themselves or don’t like the terms of how they’re being limited.

Trying to forge agreement on limits is difficult, even though the system already privileges some users over others.

Water is allocated based on whoever started using it first, with later users – who have junior water rights – having to stand in line behind senior water right holders, who get their allocation of the water first. (Hence the phrase, “first in time, first in right.”)

It’s a simple concept that we’re all familiar with. For instance, if you’re among the first standing in line to buy tickets to a film or a concert, you’d be upset if somebody who came after you cut in line and bought the seats you were hoping to purchase. Water law works similarly – it doesn’t guarantee the right to a ticket, only the chance to use one if it is still available by the time you reach the front of the line.

But when it comes to Ogallala groundwater, the tickets never sell out, at least in the short term. The wells of junior water rights holders are hardly ever shut down to protect senior wells from impairment. That’s because the painful effects of scarcity aren’t felt immediately when you’re mining water from below as they are when, say, a drought reduces the flow of water that can be used for irrigation from the surface. As a result, the Ogallala has become a giant drink with too many straws. It can’t support all users at their present levels forever.

Theoretically, the problem might be less severe if senior water right holders fought to reduce the number of straws affecting what they can draw. But when they’ve tried to assert their place in line, it can get ugly. Just ask Garetson Bros. of Haskell County, who faced backlash from neighbors and a five-year legal battle over impairment of its senior water right by two junior rights. What’s defensible under the law isn’t always easy to enforce or likely to win allies.

Annual use of the High Plains Aquifer, which includes the Ogallala, fluctuates widely from year to year, often based on whether farmers receive a lot of rainfall or suffer through a drought. And while irrigation statewide peaked in the 1980s, aquifer users still pumped 37.3 million acre-feet or an average of 2.9 million acre-feet per year, between 2005 and 2017, according to state records. The 37.3 million figure is more water than can fit in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, near Las Vegas.

Furthermore, as groundwater gets scarcer, its use is becoming ever more concentrated among fewer and fewer irrigators. Analyses of state reports show the top 150 users consumed about 22 percent of all groundwater drawn from the High Plains Aquifer over the past 12 years. The average user in the top 2 percent withdrew 4,232 acre-feet, enough to cover more than 3,100 football fields in a foot of water. The remaining 98 percent of users report consuming just a fraction of that, an average of about 230 acre-feet per year.

But to understand how we got here – and where we might be going – it helps to rewind to last summer, when the future of water in western Kansas became the centerpiece of a tour being led by then-Gov. Sam Brownback.

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