One of the measures I use to judge whether someone is a serious thinker in Kansas politics is by seeing where they stand on water policy. It seems like there are drought warnings every summer, and those droughts have let other states leap ahead of Kansas in wheat production – a major part of our economy.
Although the entire state is now under a drought warning, it has been a weird summer with some places inundated with water while others just a few miles down the road remain dry.
“We’ve seen some rain showers around the state, but overall it’s still very dry,” Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said.
“Until we see a major change in the weather and get some sustained rainfall, the drought will continue,” said Sebelius, who issued an order Monday bringing the state’s remaining 25 counties, including Douglas County, under the warning.
In Douglas County, recent rains may have greened up lawns, but the water came too late for corn crops, which are taking a big hit.
“Estimated yields are probably less than half of normal,” said Johnathon Alley, executive director for the county Farm Service Agency.
The truly worrying thing is not the rainfall, but the water under the ground.
The illustration here is from a Kansas Geological Survey report on the Ogllala Aquifer, which waters most of western Kansas. Red areas are those with less than 25 years of water in them when pumped at a fraction of rates needed for irrigation. Yellow areas have over 100 years.
That aquifer supplies drinking water, it supplies irrigation and it waters the cattle that are ranched in much of that area. Some of the largest farms in the state are situated right over the most depleted areas.
That’s probably no accident. The size of those farms is a product of consolidation which was driven by the growing cost of extracting water. Industrial farms can afford more wells and draw the aquifer down faster.
When those areas dry out, the economy of western Kansas will collapse. Irrigated land turns salty when the sprinklers are shut off, so even drought resistant breeds won’t grow there. Farmers and ranchers will be stuck, and Kansas will suffer.
As I’ve said before, fixing this will take serious effort by local and statewide leaders. It’ll require changes in the way that water is used and allocated by towns. As it stands, some cities are buying up farms just to get their water rights as the city’s existing wells dry up. But that peeves the farmers in the area, who rightly want to keep family farms in production.
I don’t know the answer, but I know that inaction won’t help. The most disappointing part of a candidate forum for the Republican candidates for governor I attended was when the man who won the nomination completely dodged a question about western water policy, preferring to discuss natural gas wells in the area. And of course, everyone involved preferred to complain about judges, abortion and science classes, all while an existential emergency goes unaddressed.