HUTCHINSON, Kansas (AP) – Some call it flyover country. It’s not mountainous like its Colorado neighbor. There aren’t hundreds of lakes and streams like Missouri.
The landscape is largely flat and treeless. Population is sparse.
Yet, those flying east or west across semi-arid western Kansas can see the money, even from 30,000 feet above the Earth.
Green circles. Thousands of them.
Here, on the High Plains of Kansas, is an economy that grew because of water. Over the years, many farmers have owed their livelihoods to the underground reservoir known as the Ogallala — the nation’s largest freshwater aquifer. Stretching across eight states, it stores almost as much water as Lake Erie and Lake Huron combined, The Hutchinson News reported (http://bit.ly/1kGjimh ).
Irrigation transformed this region known by early explorers as the Great American Desert into an oasis of sorts. In an area of limited rainfall and surface water availability, the Ogallala allowed farmers to grow corn, which attracted cattle feedlots, then meatpacking plants, ethanol plants and dairies.
Reality, however, rests underneath 86-year-old Rodger Funk’s feet. The Garden City farmer sat at his kitchen table, a running irrigation center pivot visible out the window behind him.
The wells across this vast landscape are running dry.
More than a half-century ago, Funk attended a meeting where state officials told him and the few others in attendance that the water wasn’t an endless river as they once thought. It is finite, they said, and it is being mined.
And, one by one over the years, when it was no longer economically feasible to pump water to his crops anymore, Funk began plugging wells, making the switch to dryland farming.
“Everybody believed it, I believed it — this water is going to last forever,” Funk said.
Decades later, the landscape is changing, including for Funk and his son, Boyd. As more, like the Funks, switch to dryland with the drop of the water table, it could mean less population and a potential decline in the Main Street that is built on agriculture.
“You wonder what this is going to look like 50 years from now,” Funk said.
For more than seven decades, farmers and other industries have been mining the Ogallala Aquifer — the lifeblood of the western Kansas economy — faster than nature can recharge it.
Those farming the western plains don’t receive enough rain to grow crops like corn. They’ve depended on the aquifer to sustain their crops.
However, too many holes have been poked into the Ogallala. It’s been declining a little each year since the advent of irrigation — which largely occurred in the 1940s and 1950s.
Some areas already have exhausted the resource to a point where it is no longer viable to pump it anymore, said Kansas Water Office Director Tracy Streeter.
Today, however, state leaders, including Gov. Sam Brownback, aren’t hiding the fact that the Ogallala Aquifer is waning due to an overabundance of irrigation wells spewing out water — up to 5 billion gallons a day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The amount flowing from an 800-gallon-a-minute irrigation well will fill an Olympic swimming pool in just over an hour, according to the book “Cadillac Desert.” It also conveniently irrigates 100 acres or more of crops.
There have been plenty of discussions about the declines over the years, as well as talks about potential solutions. In the late 1970s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied the issue, even unveiling a plan in 1982 to build an aqueduct from the Missouri River to southwest Kansas as a long-term solution. In the early 1990s, while Gov. Sam Brownback was Secretary of Agriculture, his board formed an Ogallala Task Force aimed at investigating ways of maintaining and enhancing the agricultural economy of the Ogallala. The task force held hearings across the state, and issued a report in 1993 on solutions.
Most talks so far have never resulted in action.
Yet, when Brownback came back from Washington to take the reins as the state’s chief executive, he again brought the dwindling Ogallala to the forefront of his agenda. Last fall, the governor charged his administration to develop a vision for water, saying the state must move forward to preserve its natural resource. He made it clear that the issue is one he wants answered and soon.
Continuing the status quo is not an option, Brownback has noted. In southwest Kansas alone, water adds nearly $600 million annually to the local economy. The eventual loss of the Ogallala would be devastating.
If Kansans continue down the current path, the state’s water resources could be nearly spent in 50 years, Brownback has said, quoting a Kansas State University study. Roughly 70 percent of Kansas’ Ogallala would be depleted by 2064. About 40 percent of the irrigated area today wouldn’t even be able to support a 400-gallon-a-minute well to pump water to a corn crop.
“This is absolutely huge,” said Mark Rude, executive director of southwest Kansas’ Groundwater Management District No. 3, an area with pockets that have experienced declines of 150 feet since development. “What you are talking about here is jobs, opportunity, and opportunity for people to even stay here. If you cut the water — people move where there is water, and if there is no water, people move where there is water.
“Water is opportunity and water is life,” he said.
The Ogallala’s disappearance, however, has been a slow-motion process — decades in the making, said Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey. And, he noted, the sand-and-gravel aquifer varies across the western Kansas region, making the situation more imminent for some — especially in west-central Kansas, where most wells are pumping well below 400 gallons a minute.
For others, the eventual fate is still many years away. Some have 100 to 250 years left under their farms, while others have just 25.
The effects of depletion are evident from above the surface, as well, Buchanan said. Back when pioneers first settled the region, the Arkansas River was a wide but shallow swell, with some stretches reaching a quarter- to half-mile wide. A ferry near Pierceville in Gray County in the 1880s allowed horse and wagon to cross the waterway. Today, highway bridges span an arid riverbed. In fact, most of the creeks and rivers that once veined across western Kansas have dried up as 60 years of pumping have pulled groundwater levels below what the rivers need to keep them flowing.
As a result, the aquifer is slowly depleting, the water table dropping by as much as two to five feet a year in some areas of southwest Kansas. One farmer in Grant County noted he has wells that have dropped nearly 200 feet since his ancestors drilled them.
It would take a few thousand years for the aquifer to fully recharge with rainfall.
“We treat this as a crisis, but it isn’t a crisis,” Buchanan said of a reality most have known for decades. “It is not happening overnight.
“This is a problem that will solve itself one way or another,” he said. “You will use less water over time. You don’t have any choice.”
Sixty-year-old Boyd Funk, however, is making it work on the northern Finney County farm his father and grandfather once irrigated. Except for four circles the family rents out, the Funks are entirely dryland. He is able to manage 36 quarters of dryland largely himself.
He relies on the sky, he said, for moisture, and he admits in dry years the yields aren’t there. That includes this year. On this late June day, a poor wheat crop awaits the combine, which sits outside Rodger’s home. June showers after a multi-year drought have kept Boyd out of the field.
The end is inevitable. The question is when it will happen and what western Kansas will look like. Boyd Funk already has an idea.
It doesn’t take as many farmers to operate dryland, he said. There won’t be the need for some of the businesses that have sprouted from irrigation. It also means a decrease in land values and tax revenue for the state.
“When everything goes to dryland, it will take less people, less inputs,” the younger Funk said. “It means a lot less economic activity that will be generated by agriculture when the Ogallala goes.”
“That is the real question,” Boyd said. “What are we going to do when the Ogallala is gone?”