- Associated Press - Friday, July 25, 2014

SALINA, Kan. (AP) - Mixed into the debate over what to do about declining water tables and reservoir storage in Kansas is evidence of a clash between those who don’t irrigate crops and those who do, or perhaps those who live where there is more rain.

Similar opinions can be found all over the state, including the aim to extend the useful life of the Ogallala Aquifer. And, common positions on the Governor’s Vision on the Future of Water in Kansas, a document that is currently open to discussion, also are evident by region. A final draft will be released Nov. 12 in Manhattan.

“There are definitely strong differences between the east and the west, in some cases, on what is considered the beneficial use of water,” said Dave Brenn, of Lawrence, president and co-founder of the Kansas Water Congress, The Salina Journal reported (https://bit.ly/1rowCBr ).

Like many, he has watched the water economy in western Kansas unfold over many years, including a decade from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. That’s when Brenn was the Haskell County Extension agent in southwest Kansas. He followed that with 20 years as an official with the Garden City Company, a large land holding company with about 30,000 acres in irrigation in Finney and Kearny counties.

Brenn, 64, retired from the Garden City Company in 2003 as senior vice president and general manager. He was appointed and reappointed by three Kansas governors to the Kansas-Colorado Arkansas River Compact Commission, served eight years on the Kansas Water Authority, and is a past member of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3 board. From 2006 to 2011, Brenn also served as executive director of Groundwater Management District No. 1, based in Scott City.

Speaking only for himself, Breen said the only way to reach a resolution concerning the future of the Ogalalla Aquifer is to meet in the middle, “… as opposed to regulating the differences to death.”

“We’ve got to respect current law, and if it isn’t correct, there should be a mature approach to determine what to do.”

Without water, said Mary Fund, programs and policy director at the Kansas Rural Center, of Whiting, there will be no basis for that economy, so pumping the aquifer dry is not a sound approach.

Today’s efforts may be “too little, too late,” she said. “They keep saying, ‘If we’d known about this 30 or 40 years ago…’ Well, we did know about it then.”

Calls for less pumping aren’t necessarily disputed in the west, but dismissed as unrealistic, especially if one intends to pump no more than is recharged - about one-fourth of an inch a year.

Gary Baker, former director of Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3, based in Garden City, said achieving “safe yield” would require shutting off nine out of every 10 wells in the region. He now works as a water right consultant and appraiser in Hugoton.

“We’d have to quit pumping,” said Kirk Heger, of Hugoton, president of the Southwest Kansas Irrigation Association and a member of the GMD No. 3 board of directors.

Stevens County farmer Steve Rome e-mailed a comment after environmental groups weighed in for a June 1 Salina Journal story: “… The public wants water conservation but they have no skin in the game.

“It seems unfair for someone that has nothing invested to expect ‘sustainability.’ I wonder if most of the proponents of that concept have any idea what it would take to achieve that.”

Rome and Heger contend that they’ve been able to reduce pumping over the years.

“It’s never enough,” Rome said, in a reaction to the first draft of the Governor’s vision, which was released July 1 on the Kansas Water Office website.

“For the guy working at Boeing (in Wichita), does it affect him if I irrigate or not? I will contend that (irrigation in western Kansas) doesn’t affect most of the people in Kansas,” Rome said.

To suggest conservation when it’s already in the works is an insult to irrigators who already are cutting back, Heger said.

Fund agrees that some fairness would be appropriate.

“We do have a tendency to penalize those who have been the good guys all along,” she said.

“The state said, ‘You can keep it local, but you have to take care of it.’ Well, you didn’t take care of it,” Fund said. The water vision draft is “just kicking the can down the road,” she said.

“I’m interested in the long term.”

During a public meeting July 9 in Assaria, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey told the audience that “If we don’t take action, we are going to have even more of an east-west clash that will be more difficult for us to manage.”

While there are “extreme opinions on both sides, there are also moderate opinions, but we often hear the extremes through the media,” Brenn said. “There is a real need to take the time to discuss the facts and not make snap judgments.”

Agreeing is one hurdle, said John Strickler, but another is paying for programs aimed at extending the aquifer, fixing reservoirs and securing new sources of water. Strickler was an aide to Gov. Mike Hayden and currently is a member of the Kansas chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

“Before they publish a final draft, I would hope they get into realistically addressing the cost and funding, or frankly, this effort won’t amount to much,” said Strickler, 78, who said he was speaking only for himself.

“I’m a little cynical about how serious this is, but we’ll see,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the governor and the Legislature. That’s why we have to have a dedicated source of funding.”

After 50 years in Kansas, coming here initially to work with the Kansas Forest Service at Kansas State University, he has visited every county. Strickler said he wants the state water vision to also address “wildlife and ecological value” and push for more riparian areas to reduce sedimentation in reservoirs.

“I give western Kansas credit. There are a lot of efforts at conservation, but as far as I know, the water levels are still going down,” Strickler said. “I’m sympathetic to the dilemma they face. They built the economy out there on irrigation, and then they built tremendous infrastructure - feedlots, packing plants and dairies - all dependent on water.”

He has questions for irrigators.

“Are they going to simply continue to pump until the water runs out or until the cost goes so high that it’s not economical, or will they make some adjustments?” Strickler said.

Water isn’t the government’s total responsibility, he said, “but the government does regulate the appropriate levels, and they’re over-appropriated.”

Can irrigators can pump less without devastating results?

“I don’t know,” Brenn said. “The impacts are tremendous. These challenges are more social and economic than in hydrologic engineering.

“We all realize these declines, and that these concerns and issues must be addressed, but it’s not a simple thing.”


Information from: The Salina (Kan.) Journal, https://www.salina.com

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