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Pending Water Crisis Plagues Western Kansas

Water has been an issue in western Kansas for decades. The state's farming and livestock industries rely heavily on massive amounts of water. But the underground reservoir supplying most of that water has been strained, leaving many to wonder just how long it will last. Commentator Rex Buchanan, who's been measuring water wells in western Kansas for 20 some years, is also worried about the future of water out west.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer and director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. The Lawrence resident is also coauthor of the book Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills


Out in central Kansas where I grew up, people used to talk about “the State Fair rains,” rains that sometimes showed up in mid-September, signaling the end of summer, usually in time to provide moisture for planting wheat.

If there was ever a year we needed state fair rains, it’s this year. Drought maps show a big bullseye over southwestern and south-central Kansas, where the drought from the western U.S. seems to have spilled over into Kansas.

That drought has exacerbated one of the state’s major, long-term water issues: declines in the Ogallala aquifer. According to the Kansas Geological Survey, water levels measured last January in central and western Kansas were down about a foot from the previous year, and down more than two feet in southwestern Kansas. That continues an historic trend of major depletion of the Ogallala, depletion that has been going on since at least the 1970s.

So, it’s no surprise that the state is once again talking about water.

For nearly two years, a committee of the Kansas House of Representatives held hearings about water. Late in last winter’s legislative session, that Committee introduced a major bill that would have transformed water regulation in the state. Responsibility for regulating water quantity in Kansas currently resides in the Kansas Department of Agriculture. The new bill would have, among other changes, created a stand-alone water agency to regulate water. The bill would also have changed the way some local units of government, called groundwater management districts, are controlled.

The bill didn’t even make it out of committee, largely due to opposition from farm-related organizations. At least one of the opponents called the bill “a solution in search of a problem.” But that’s a little hard for me to understand, when you look at maps showing dramatic declines in the water table out west, year after year after year. The numbers don’t lie.

That’s not to say that nothing has changed since the 1970s.  Some areas have made voluntary agreements to cut back water use by as much as 20%. Water planning money was more fully funded by the legislature last year.

Still, in most places and especially southwestern Kansas, the inexorable declines continue.

In response to all this, the legislature created yet another committee, this one composed of both House and Senate members. They held hearings just a few weeks ago. The Ogallala, as well as water quality and reservoir sedimentation and other issues, were once again discussed.

Is all this is leading anywhere or is it just another exercise?

A friend of mine makes the following analogy to declines in the Ogallala. It must be similar, he says, to a patient who develops lung cancer but refuses to give up smoking. Maybe we’re just too addicted to unsustainable water use to do anything about it. Another friend of mine says that the failure to act on water will be like writing a eulogy for much of western Kansas.

When we measure water levels this January, they’re going to show significant declines, especially in southwestern Kansas, since dry weather almost always results in more pumping.

It’s too late for the State Fair rains to do much about that. I sure hope they come anyway. But hope isn’t much of a plan.

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