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Agriculture and water – irrigated solutions
Dr. Victor Martin

Today ends the discussion regarding agriculture, water and the challenges face by a limited and uncertain water supply. Irrigated crop production is a key driver in not only agricultural production but also the Kansas economy as a whole. It is vital to not only crop production but the entire cattle industry, including the feedlot and packing industry of Western Kansas. Many of the possible solutions benefitting dryland agriculture in last week column apply here such as planting date, crop rotation, minimizing or eliminating tillage and so on. 

Several items before possible solutions. Water rights are appropriated by the State of Kansas and this water is a resource technically owned by all the citizens of Kansas. There is a concept, “First In Time,” meaning that older (senior) water rights take priority over newer (junior) water rights. Simply put, senior water rights take precedence so if that right isn’t receiving its water, it can go to the state and the state can shut down junior water rights holders. This is the situation currently involving the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and irrigators along the Rattlesnake Creek Watershed. Second, to establish a permitted water right you had to use water and document that usage.  After establishment in the past, if you didn’t use the water, you could lose all or part of that water. Third, if you used more than your annual allotted right, you could incur penalties and/or fines. During the Brownback Administration several factors came together, including the drought of 2012, causing the state to make some changes to help irrigators and protect water supplies. There isn’t time to detail them here but suffice it to say the goal was to aid irrigated crop producers and help protect and extend the life of groundwater supplies. These changes have found some success but have been hampered by a lack of funding. Now onto what possible solutions are out there.

• Water rights are over appropriated in Western Kansas and must be decreased. Suggestions have been made to compensate those giving up those rights but little has actually happened.

• Irrigators voluntarily coming together, or through legislation, to reduce everyone’s appropriation but allowing everyone to continue to have some water.

• This is short one – eliminate the use of end guns on pivots. Even the best ones are inefficient.

• Voluntarily or with state and/or federal cost sharing programs renozzle/repressure pivots to maximize efficiency. Using drop nozzles, LEPA systems, and other technologies can increase efficiency.

• Where practical and with possible government assistance if practical install subsurface drip irrigation. While expensive and requiring more maintenance and management, if can maintain high crop yields with much less water.

• Scheduling irrigation using sensors and/or weather data with computer programs to precisely use water.

• Exploring alternative irrigated crops able to serve the feedlot industry. Also, explore the use of lower water usage crops that are profitable such as cotton, winter canola, and forages.

There are more possibilities and opportunities but one thing is certain, the state, public, and producers must come together to find viable solutions.

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.