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Conserving the Ogallala
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Speaking in the heart of irrigation country and the Ogallala Aquifer region, Gov. Sam Brownback signed two bills in southwestern Kansas that are intended to lengthen the life of this region’s water resources. Brownback signed the bills March 5 at Garden City High School while students, community leaders, farm organization members and legislators watched.
The bills were historic because they mark a change in how water-rights holders will use their water in the future, particularly in the Ogallala Aquifer. This aquifer located in western Kansas is a vast underground pool of water. It is one of the world’s largest aquifers and covers an area that includes portions of eight states: Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, South Dakota and Wyoming.
The High Plains region relies on the Ogallala for water; however, this finite resource is being depleted due to years of extensive irrigation.
One bill that will now apply to only closed appropriation areas of the state repeals a 1945 law that required use of a certain amount of water each year under a so-called use-it-or-lose-it doctrine. The other bill gives rights holders more flexibility in how they use their water each year. 
Brownback believes it will allow for more water usage in dry years, with an eye toward conservation in wet years. Both measures were part of the agenda he outlined in January for the 2012 legislative session.
“I believe we should feel good about these measures that will help extend the life of our state’s water resources,” the Kansas governor said. “The people who use water in this region of Kansas are passionate about water and they understand we don’t have a future without it.”
Stanton County producer Jim Sipes attended the signing ceremony and says these two bills are the culmination of something farmers/irrigators have been trying to get in western Kansas for a long time.
“For those of us who do not use our water through irrigation anymore, it gives us the flexibility to continue to conserve the water without having to figure out ways to keep this water right viable now that use-it-or-lose-it for our closed appropriation areas has been repealed,” Sipes said. “The combination of these two bills will give producers who want to irrigate the ability to do so while getting the most use of that water and benefiting the state and our crop producers.”
Joining the governor for the bill signing was Ogallala Aquifer Advisory Committee chair Gary Harshberger, who also farms in southwestern Kansas. Harshberger believes these measures will help move “the culture from one of consumption to one of water conservation.”
Additional water-related measures continue to march through the process. Farm organizations including Kansas Farm Bureau testified recently in support of separate House-passed measures allowing neighboring farmers to devise their own groundwater management, the dividing of water rights, water banking and an irrigation transition assistance plan.
Anticipation is high for the passage of LEMAs or Local enhancement Management Area plans. LEMAs would promote local control for irrigators. LEMAs also call for reductions of water use if supported by the Groundwater Management District, have corrective measures that address conservation needs and are approved by the Chief Engineer.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.