"Daddy's cotton grows so high, it sucks the water table dry. His rolling sprinklers circle by, bleeding it to the bone…"
It's a bit of a sardonic perspective, but James McMurtry's "Levelland," a High Plains hymn about growing up in a small town on the Llano Estacado in Texas, may foretell more truth about the distant future of the Ogallala Aquifer than he realized when he wrote it nearly 20 years ago. However, even then, folks were voicing concerns over the depletion of the Ogallala, which, by some accounts, will be about 70% depleted by 2060. According to U.S. Geological Survey data, the Ogallala has declined as much as 100 feet in some parts of western Kansas.
It's a common thread heard throughout Kansas, especially last week at the Governor's Conference on the Future of Water, where the Kansas Water Vision Team rolled out the second draft of the 50-Year Vision for Water. The Ogallala is a part of the larger High Plains aquifer, which underlies 174,000 square miles in eight states, including 30,500 square miles in western and central Kansas, according to data from U.S. Geological Survey and Kansas Geological Survey.
Kansans use about four million acre feet of water each year, approximately 90% of it pumped from groundwater sources. Fly over the High Plains region of Kansas, and it becomes apparent that water is the lifeblood of Kansas agriculture – evidenced by the green center pivot circles that dot the countryside. In fact, irrigation accounts for about 80% to 85% of all water used in Kansas.
Water conservation innovation
By now, these numbers are probably no secret to most people in Kansas with a stake in the state's water supply. While it's been common for those outside of Kansas agriculture to point fingers at irrigators, these numbers alone don't show the efforts and innovations being made to cut back on the amount of water used in agriculture, communities, and industries in the state. So, included in the Vision Team's second draft is a section called, "Be the Vision," to highlight some of these accomplishments. These include:
• Owens Corning, fiberglass manufacturer in Kansas City, has reduced its use over ten years from one million gallons per day to 30,000 gallons per day through updates like installing a chiller system as a chemical tank cooling function, and installing a system of water meters connected through a central computer with alarm units to send alerts and prevent large scale water waste.
• Fort Riley, selected by the Army as being one of eight Net Zero Water Pilot installations with the goal of reducing water use intensity by 50% by 2020. Fort Riley has also partnered with K-State faculty and research students to develop projects with the EPA's Office of Research and Development to reduce water consumption.
• The City of Hays, which, since the 1990s, has implemented practices to reduce water usage, including incentivizing the purchase of low-flow toilets and high-efficiency washing machines, effluent water reuse, and most recently, incentivizing drought-tolerant landscaping, and limiting the amount of turf that can be irrigated.
• McCarty Family Farms, LLC, a 7,000-head dairy near Rexford, which has implemented practices that have helped it move closer to a water-neutral operation. This includes using less water-intensive crops to feed cows, and building a condensed milk processing plant, allowing the extraction of over 14 million gallons of water from the milk they produce each year, and over 39,000 gallons a day, and reusing the water for animal and crop care.
• National Cooperative Refinery Association, which is in the process of constructing treatment facilities to reclaim and reuse alternative water sources, such as wastewater from the McPherson wastewater treatment facility and chloride "plume" water from the Equus Beds aquifer – helping clean up the plume in the aquifer and provide the City of McPherson and surrounding area with a sustainable water source.
• Sheridan 6 Local Enhanced Management Area in Sheridan and Thomas counties, which entered into a five-year plan to use nearly 20% less water, allowing an annual average of 11 inches per acre, or 55 inches over five years. After the first year of the LEMA, the annual average irrigation water applied was 10.29 inches per acre. While some producers in the area applied up to 18 inches due to drought, most made adjustments to use less irrigation with increased water management, shifts in crops, planting density, or acres.
• Supreme Feeders of Kismet, after learning they had over-used their annual water allocation, began implementing practices to use less water while still maintaining cleanliness and a healthy environment. They installed a reclamation system to filter and clean water of particles and pathogens before reusing it. After using the system for over a year, Supreme Feeders has saved over 90 million gallons, is pumping 20% less water, and is using 200 acre feet less than their appropriated amount.
• FirstWater Ag, Inc., of Atwood. FirstWater's customized zone control irrigation systems create individually-controlled watering zones and times, allowing producers to apply different amounts on different parts of a field. A controller installed at the pivot controls the speed of the system and sprinkler zones. Control valves are placed on sprinkler points with multiple sprinklers in a zone. Up to 48 zones can be used, and with a GPS signal, the controller can change the action of sprinklers every 1 degree, creating potential for over 17,000 individual areas in a full center pivot.
• Wenstrom Farms near Kinsley, has been monitoring water use since the 1970s. Over 20 years ago, Richard Wenstrom began using a computerized irrigation scheduling system with 24 center pivots on his 4,200-acre farm, allowing him to take into account temperature, humidity, wind, rainfall, and other climate data, and play out various scenarios to ensure highest efficiency. He estimated his system saved from 20 to 30 acre feet of water per pivot compared to irrigation regimes that didn't use scheduling in the 1980s.
More information on "Be the Vision" and the full second draft of the 50-Year Vision are available at the KWO website.