State’s water vision is still blurry

By Rod Haxton, editor

Kansas is in the midst of determining the future of water over the next 50 years.

As the old saying goes, better 30 years late than never.

A Water Vision team, organized at the behest of Gov. Sam Brownback, has recently completed its statewide tour with the first draft of its water conservation plan. It was seeking additional input before offering what it hopes will be a final proposal later this year.

While the Water Vision plan is fairly specific in its goals, it’s purposely vague on how it wants to get there. The Water Vision Team made it clear that this plan is to be driven from the bottom up and that public input will be the driving force in how the state achieves its ultimate goals in preserving and conserving its water resources.

It would lend one to think that the state and its citizens have made tremendous progress in our view of water resources over the past three decades.

While living in Kinsley, we would ride with a friend on occasion while he would check irrigation wells on what was then known as Circle K Ranch. It was a 7,000-acre corporate farming operation in the sandhills south of the Arkansas River.

The absentee owners, in their infinite wisdom, had the land broken out of native grass and they tried to plant corn. Either through gross mismanagement or poor soil conditions, they had an extremely difficult time getting corn to grow in the area. It was common to see sprinkler systems that were operating for the sole purpose of keeping the loose soil from blowing into Nebraska.

Today, that same land is owned by the City of Hays which is still trying to figure how it can transfer water 60 miles north over the legal objections of Edwards County.

What was happening to a valuable water resource on that Circle K operation some 35 years ago was unconscionable, but it wasn’t criminal - though it should have been.

At least we’re more conscientious about such behavior today. But, in reality, we may not have progressed as far as we’d like to think.

State Rep. Don Hineman, who also farms in Lane County, offered some insight into the issue during the Vision Team’s recent stop in Dighton. He pointed out that a farmer who elects to use less water by choice, rather than necessity, doesn’t directly benefit from that decision.

Maybe his children or grandchildren will. Perhaps even his neighbor will benefit from less drawdown in his irrigation well. But what benefit does that farmer realize in the short term by using less water, resulting in lower production and less profit?

That’s a legitimate question.

A 20 percent reduction in water usage isn’t likely to reduce income by 20 percent, but it’s reasonable to assume it will have some impact. And still unaddressed are guidelines regarding limited irrigation’s impact on crop insurance.

Is the farmer who balks at taking that step voluntarily any less socially conscious than the person who won’t buy a Prius, even though it will help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, or the person who won’t purchase LED bulbs for the home because they’re more expensive?

 

Jay Garetson, a Sublette farmer and former member of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, has raised a similar question, but from a different perspective. While a strong advocate of the need to conserve water for future generations, he says that same moral conviction isn’t shared by all bankers and absentee landowners who are more interested in getting what you can while you can.

What happens 20 or 30 years from now is for someone else to worry about, right?

So what’s the answer?

That, of course, is the dilemma.

Rep. Hineman suggests financial incentives should be patterned after programs which have been successful in encouraging soil conservation. But that would require a considerable amount of money which Kansas is notoriously lacking and financial aid isn’t likely to come from the federal government for a Western Kansas Ogallala Aquifer preservation effort.

And what’s the likelihood of something happening voluntarily given the recent LEMA vote in GWMD No. 1?

Even without the lopsided opposition in Wallace County, a 20 percent reduction in water usage only received little more than half the votes in the other four counties.

This is the same 20 percent reduction being proposed by the Vision Team in an area where we’re already seeing wells shut down because of a sharply declining aquifer. If there isn’t enough grassroots support under those circumstances, just how much support is there going to be across the entirety of Western Kansas and, in particular, Southwest Kansas where the aquifer runs deeper?

The Vision Team emphasizes that a conservation program won’t come as a directive from the top, given Brownback’s philosophy of less government. But if a clear majority of stakeholders around the state aren’t willing to buy into a plan is Brownback and the legislature simply going to throw their collective arms into the air and proclaim, “Well, at least we tried”?

A grassroots-driven effort sounds wonderful, but that may be easier said than done. And, quite frankly, it’s difficult to imagine such a plan gathering wide support when the Vision Team unveils a final proposal later this year.

It’s not a matter of whether we should do something. We were clearly past that point long ago.

How to get enough stakeholders to voluntarily buy into a plan without legal or financial incentives from the state well . . . that’s where things get a little blurry.

Rod Haxton can be reached at editor@screcord.com

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