Still not serious about the Ogallala

By Rod Haxton, editor

Over the years, Republicans have coined the term “non-starter” when referencing any number of political issues - climate change, tax increases for the wealthy, immigration reform, etc.

Let’s add one more to the list: an aqueduct to feed water from the Missouri River to Western Kansas farmers.

The cost: $18 billion (and probably more).

The time frame: 20 years (and probably more).

Are we serious? Every Kansan will have to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day and chug a six-pack of beer (men, women and children) under Gov. Sam Brownback’s new tax increase plan in order to pay for such a massive building project and to also keep his tax cuts in effect for our wealthiest citizens and corporations.

With an $18 billion price tag, it might be cheaper for the Kansas Legislature to study the feasibility of capturing a massive meteor of ice in outer space and dropping it into the landscape near Utica. That idea has just about as much chance of happening as an aqueduct and it would be a lot healthier for our population.

That this idea was even resurrected from the 1980s shows how disconnected . . . perhaps desperate . . . we are when it comes to tackling one of the most important issues confronting Kansas.

Legislators and officials within the Brownback Administration like to praise the governor for raising awareness about the declining Ogallala. First of all, the fact the Ogallala is declining at an unsustainable rate is not news. Neither is our lack of commitment in addressing the issue.

To remind us that we have to do something about the Ogallala, conduct a series of meetings and then say, “Okay, folks, you come up with an answer” isn’t leadership. It barely qualifies as governance. Let’s see . . . the state acknowledges there are parts of Western Kansas that only have enough sustainable groundwater to last for another 25 years - some areas less than that - and we’re going to consider an aqueduct plan that will take 20 years to complete (provided a government project, involving private contractors, is both on time and under budget).

Isn’t that cutting it a bit close?

Of course, there’s always Plan B. We can encourage Western Kansas landowners and water users to take greater ownership of their resource by developing Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs) in which they set their own rules for conserving a resource we know is being depleted.

How’s that working? The Sheridan 6 LEMA in parts of Sheridan and Thomas counties includes just under 25,000 acres of irrigated land. It’s a start.

But there are 31 Western Kansas counties sitting over the Ogallala Aquifer which represent 2.1 million irrigated acres (according to Kansas State University). That means Kansas landowners have taken the serious step of committing just 1.1 percent of irrigated acres in Western Kansas to a voluntary water reduction plan.

Reducing irrigation pumping is so serious that landowners in the five-county Groundwater Management District No. 1, which includes Scott, Lane, Wichita, Greeley and Wallace counties, voted against a LEMA. Apparently, the prevailing mindset is that an aqueduct will come to our rescue or there’s enough water to last until the current generation of farmers is ready to retire. Let the next generation come up with a solution.

This is where water policy is in Kansas.


The governor is content with giving the impression that he’s serious and the legislature hasn’t shown that it’s willing to rule Western Kansas irrigators with the heavy hand of government regulations. In the meantime, those Western Kansas irrigators keep right on pumping until the laws of nature dictate what weak lawmakers won’t.

For some, the evidence is irrefutable. Rep. Tom Sloan (R-Lawrence), who is an advocate for the environment - which puts him in the minority within an ultraconservative legislature - says it’s too late to think that voluntary measures alone will solve our groundwater problem.

Rep. Tom Moxley, a legislator from Council Grove and a ranch owner, was a little more blunt.

“Ultimately, what we want to happen is to have my neighbors reduce their water use and I can still use mine,” says Moxley.

And there appears to be little on the horizon to change that perception. After holding numerous meetings around the state with more than 13,000 individuals, State Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey has offered a series of recommendations for the legislature to consider. These ideas don’t even begin to address the serious nature of our diminishing Ogallala and only nibble away at the edges of water preservation.

Then again, what could we expect when McClaskey emphasizes that a state water plan should be “voluntary-driven, incentive-driven and market-based.” Sounds amazingly close to what we already have.

As for being effective? Well, we can’t have everything.

But at least we’re talking about it. And we do have this aqueduct plan from 1982.

And there are some legislative hearings scheduled next week with a Mr. Wile E. Coyote who claims to be with NASA. Something about Acme rockets moving huge masses of ice from space.

Crazy? Maybe. But it’s the best plan on the table, so far.

Rod Haxton can be reached at

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