Third-generation western Kansas farmer Jay Garetson cringed a bit when he said it, but he made it clear: Regulation is the only way to stop the mining of the Ogallala Aquifer by irrigation agriculture.
When a panel of state legislators addressing the Governor's Conference on the Future of Kansas Water in Manhattan Thursday agreed they preferred "voluntary, incentive-based" reduction, Garetson spoke up.
"I'm a conservative guy and I hate regulation as much as anybody," he said. "But in this game, you have to have a referee and he has to blow the whistle. That is all there is to it."
Garetson said he feels compelled to violate his own ethics and overpump water to grow corn because the economics of the situation apply unbearable pressure.
"Right now, the standard allotment is 24 inches. I think we need to cut it to 12. Just do it. Farmers are ingenious, creative people. You make the cut and they find ways to make it work. Maybe we grow more milo and cotton. Maybe we grow limited acres of potatoes or tomatoes or some other high-value crop to make the economics come out right. But we do it."
As long as voluntary is in the picture, there will be people who won't participate and without 100% participation, the whole plan unravels, Garetson said.
His personal goal, Garetson said, is to get to the point where he can look his 15-year-old son in the eyes and tell him that he has done everything he can do to deal with the problem.
"Right now, I can't do that," he said. "I know that in the beginning, we didn't know the limitations of the aquifer. But for the last 40 years, we have known and we've been depleting it anyway. It has to stop and the only way to stop it is by law."
Garetson acknowledged that taking action will be difficult for legislators.
"I know it will be very hard for legislators from western Kansas to support what has to be done," he told Rep. Kyle Hoffman, who was a panel member and represents District 116 in south central Kansas. "That's why we need help from central and eastern Kansas legislators who are removed from the issue somewhat. The farmers who are water miners have power and they are vocal. For lawmakers who have those people in their constituency, this is a really difficult position."
Hoffman, who is chairman of the Kansas House Agriculture and Natural Resources Budget Committee, said the idea of mandating reductions goes against the grain but conceded that he understands Garetson's point.
The Governor's Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas continues today in Manhattan with a series of concurrent break-out groups to begin the process of meeting the challenge issued by Gov. Sam Brownback at the Thursday opening: Coming up with a 50-year plan to assure the water supply of Kansas.