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When Will Kansas Get Serious About Water?

The hallmarks of center pivot irrigation above the High Plains Aquifer. (Photo by Tom Schmiedeler, professor emeritus of geography, Washburn University.)

Much of Kansas received a fair amount of rain the past few weeks. For many, the precipitation is welcome news. Unfortunately, when it comes to water problems in Kansas... the recent rains are just a "drop in the bucket." Commentator Rex Buchanan has been thinking a lot about the challenges of — and the possible solutions to — the state's water woes. And he hopes state officials are listening.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is an author, writer and director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence.


I recently made a trip out west. At every turn, I was reminded about conflicts over water. In the Pacific northwest, irrigators and fishermen battle over water when rivers run low. Other conversations center not on dam building, but dam removal to improve fish habitat. The Colorado River can no longer meet the water demands of states that rely on it. Lake Powell and Lake Mead, on the Colorado River, are at some of their lowest levels ever. And tribal nations throughout the west fight to reassert their rights to water.

Many of these problems are driven by drought--crippling, long-term drought that has hit the west hard. Most of Kansas has largely avoided that kind of drought since about 2013.

In some respects, Kansas is really two states, rather than one, when it comes to water. Eastern Kansas gets lots of rain, on average, much like states to the east of us. Western Kansas is arid, like much of the American west. And western Kansas faces many of the same water issues as far western states.

For starters, there’s the issue of reduced streamflow. Throughout western Kansas, streamflow is down. That’s true not only for the Arkansas River, which is dry most of the time from Garden City to Great Bend, but other smaller tributaries as well. And, of course, groundwater declines continue in the Ogallala aquifer over much of the western third of the state. Levels dropped more than a foot throughout southwestern Kansas last year.

In the face of all this, the state’s water plan remains woefully underfunded, year after year. For an issue that everybody talks about, water can’t seem to attract much money.

The news isn’t all bad. In western Kansas, locals have created three Local Enhanced Management Areas, or LEMAs. In these areas of northwestern and west-central Kansas, the locals have voluntarily agreed to reduce their water use by a set percentage — 15 to 20% — over five-year periods. LEMAs haven’t faced a period of really short rainfall, at least so far. But they have slowed water level declines without causing undue economic dislocation. In other words, they work.  

But in southwestern Kansas, the response to groundwater declines has generally focused not on water-use reduction, but more on water importation through an aqueduct from eastern Kansas. That’s in spite of the legal, environmental, and financial hurdles such a project would face.

There are few certainties when it comes to water in Kansas. But here’s one thing we know for sure: dry times will return. And when those days come, we will have used a considerable amount of water from the Ogallala, a resource that won’t be as readily available as it has been in the past.

When drought comes back, will we be better prepared today than we were the last time around? Or will our response mirror much of the west, where bitter fights over water have become a seemingly permanent part of the landscape?

Some day, maybe soon, we’ll find out.


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