Kansas Water Challenge

State Launches Effort to Slow Drawdown of Ogallala Aquifer

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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The story of falling Ogallala Aquifer levels in Kansas hasn't changed much in the past few years, but the effort to change course is making progress. (DTN photo illustration by Nick Scalise)

MANHATTAN, Kan. (DTN) -- A Kansas map tells the story of falling water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer below the western third of the state. The image on display here this week at the Governor's Conference on the Future of Water shows deep shades of red and orange over the southwestern part of the state, indicating where the biggest drawdowns are at.

That story of falling Ogallala Aquifer levels hasn't changed much in the past few years, but the effort to change course is making progress.

Two state officials summarized the work being done following Gov. Sam Brownback's call for the creation of a 50-year water vision to extend the life of the aquifer.

There is hope that, decades from now, the aquifer maps will need to be reconfigured to reflect recharge.

The effort is massive, local and growing. Working groups have formed, and plans are in the works to attack the dwindling aquifer with every potential tool under the sun.

Kansas Agriculture Secretary Jackie McClaskey and Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, outlined a number of the issues that are the focus of the state and a variety of working groups.

McClaskey said that the past year has been productive as activities have been initiated by a taskforce on about 80% of 101 action items, which include expanding education about water, expanding conservation, improving drought-monitoring capabilities in the state, water management and a host of others.

One of the more significant actions coming from state legislators and the governor is a bill that was passed and signed into law that allows for the creation of water conservation areas where water supplies are threatened.

"The first WCA is ready for approval, and we will have 10 or 15 more approvals by the end of the year," McClaskey said. "We need your help. This is a tool to allow water rights owners to reduce withdraws. It's your water, it's your decision. I fully believe as more and more people take part in WCAs it will catch on."

The law allows a water right owner or a group of water right owners in a designated area to enter into a consent agreement and order the state's chief engineer to establish a water conservation area. The water right owner or owners are required to create and submit a management plan to the state.

When it comes to conservation, Streeter said, all regions of the state need to be able to demonstrate water conservation efforts that are effective on the farm.

"We want to get more success stories out there," he said. "We're trying to get water conservation farms started" in areas of the state where it is most needed.

The task to organize a statewide vision for water conservation is focused on a number of areas, from crop insurance to water storage to restoring stream banks:

-- McClaskey said the state continues to look for ways to make sure crop insurance doesn't impede conservation work across the state and discourage the use of alternative specialty and cover crops.

In 2016, she said, USDA's Risk Management Agency has agreed to update its policy handbook for insurance adjusters to account for conservation activities when it comes to crop insurance coverage.

-- Streeter said the state is ready to move on a sediment nutrient reduction program this next year, as well as implementing conservation reserve enhancement program work -- taking advantage of USDA funding to install buffer and filter strips along reservoirs and other areas.

The state is undertaking a streambank project along Tuttle Creek in northeast Kansas and has about $400,000 for additional projects in 2016-17. In addition, Streeter said the state is developing drought simulation exercises using federal dollars.

With the recent energy production boom in the United States, Streeter said more attention will be focused on water use in fuel development. The state has started to compile an inventory of lower-quality water sources to better understand availability.

Within the next 40 years, the state wants to be able to reuse more of that well-injected water -- used mainly by energy companies for fracking -- that is reusable.

"We need to get a handle on how much we have," Streeter said. "Look at water injected into deep wells. Some is nasty and some of it's not."

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley