Water has been in the national news a great deal lately. From the chemical spill polluting surface water used by over 300,000 people in West Virginia to the lack of snowpack that California depends on for much of its water supply, water issues are of great importance. While much of the focus recently has been on municipal water use, even in the most populous state, California, most water usage involves agriculture. Here in Kansas, the Governor, has outlined and championed an aggressive plan to extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer through a series of measures for producers to more efficiently and effectively use groundwater resources. The Kansas Farm Bureau is also working to prepare recommendations for our water resources. Kansans realize without water our largest industry is crippled and not only for irrigators. What is generating this concern?
Most of you are familiar with the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground lake of water covering not just much of western Kansas but parts of several other states that accumulated over thousands of years. Much of this High Plains aquifer, due to the nature of the rock involved, recharges quite slowly and the rate of withdrawal is much greater than the recharge rate. Combine this with the fact that the aquifer exists in areas with fairly low average rainfall and periods of extended drought, it’s easy to understand the problem. This has meant the depth to water has increased markedly since irrigation has ramped up over the last fifty years. The problems are several.
There are two main problems if nothing is done. The obvious one is that eventually the water will essentially run out, ending irrigation and with it crippling the industries in western Kansas relying on primarily corn production – the feedyard and meat packing industries. The less obvious problem is cost. Even if water was just deeper in the ground but plentiful there’s a problem – cost. The greater the distance needed to raise the water to the surface, termed the hydraulic head, the more energy you need. Depending on the price of energy, it may be impractical from a cost standpoint to irrigate.
Another issue involves municipalities and industry. People needing water is fairly obvious and industry needs people and water itself for what it does. Again, even if the water is available but deep, water rates could potentially have a crippling effect on population growth and industrial development.
On the plus side, part of the High Plains aquifer, think southern Barton and Stafford Counties, are underlain by an aquifer that recharges more easily and can recover from deficit years with good precipitation. For this area water, provided it rains, can be viewed as a sustainable resource if managed properly. Now that the problem has been laid out – what can be done? This is the focus of next week’s article.