Kansas in the next 150 years will rely less on agriculture as the backbone fueling its economy and more on the ingenuity and resilience of its urban residents to thrive.
The life and dreams for many rural Kansans will change in the next few decades as small towns hover on the precipice of growing or silently disappearing from the map.
Water will be the key resource and will determine whose jobs, lifestyles and property will survive.
Counties and services in sparsely populated areas will consolidate while cities, predominately in eastern Kansas, will continue to grow and become larger metroplexes than they already are.
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Still, Kansas will survive, said experts and officials who were asked about what our state – celebrating its 150th birthday in 2011 – will look like 150 years from now.
Not only will the state survive, they say, it might even become kind of hip.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Kansas provided the spark for the Civil War, gave rise to the Pentecostal movement, Prohibition and social reform. Following World War II, the nation’s attention shifted to the East and West Coasts. Now, the cycle may be coming full turn, some say.
As people become disenchanted with life in the coastal cities, they may turn to places like Kansas for cheaper land and housing opportunities.
Just like they did 150 years ago, people 150 years from now may look to Kansas for a chance to build their version of the American Dream – a nice house, a little piece of acreage, a place to live.
“The thing that pushed me over the edge was being a little burned out and sick and tired of the East Coast congestion,” said Bill Ihling, who lives near Reading in Lyon County.
He spent nearly five decades in New Jersey, but in 2004 he and his wife moved to Kansas. They purchased a 100-acre farm where he now has a few cows and a big garden.
“The first time I came to Kansas was when I was 11 years old,” he said. “My family and I took a cross-country road trip on our way to the Rocky Mountains.
“Everyone was looking out the window and saying this land is so flat. But my nose was pressed to the glass the entire time. I had never seen scenery like that. Something in my brain snapped. The prairies have been calling me ever since.”
Currently, Kansas is using more water than it can replenish.
Nearly 86 percent of all water used in Kansas goes to agriculture, according to Mike Hayden, former Kansas governor and secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. Of that amount, 80 percent is devoted to irrigation.
Most of that water comes from the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers, covering almost all of western Kansas. Because of demands from livestock and irrigation systems, some estimates predict the aquifer will dry up in about 25 years.
“We cannot continue to pump water at the rate and level we are now,” said Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey. “If you look at some areas of the map, there are areas where the game will be over fairly quickly – like in the next 10 to 15 years, let alone …150 years from now.”
Hayden said if the aquifer declines, waters rights will be purchased for non-agricultural uses.
“If the city of Liberal or Garden City start to run short of water, they will go out and buy irrigation wells,” Hayden said. “Leoti has already done that. A water right is a property right. It is for sale just like mineral rights are.”
Farming practices also will shift, in part because of water issues. There will be more emphasis on dryland farming and at developing drought-resistant crops. Farms will get bigger and more corporate.
“A hundred years ago if you farmed with 300 acres you were a big operator, especially if you were in western Kansas,” Hayden said. “Today, just to survive, you have got to have at least 1,000 acres and you are probably not surviving very well on that.
“With one person doing so much more, we are going to see a larger number of individual farms and the number of people who live on those farms decline.”
As water becomes more in demand, circle irrigation systems will begin to shut down. It may cause feed yards – an iconic symbol of western Kansas – to move elsewhere, Hayden said.
“Feedlots were located in southwestern Kansas because of the climate and because the feed supply is right there,” he said. “Feedlots could relocate to places, such as Iowa, where they can grow 200-bushel-to-the-acre corn without irrigation.”
And, as the feedlots go, so go the people associated with those industries, Hayden said.
In addition to water, there is concern that the Hugoton natural gas field in the southwest corner of the state may also disappear over the next 150 years.
“Clearly gas and water are limited,” Hayden said. “We are not making any more. Once it is used, it is gone.
“The Hugoton fields have been mined for 80 years. Our reserves are looking less vital and viable all the time. This will change the face of western Kansas.”
Buchanan said he doesn’t know whether that will happen.
“What we thought we would be doing in terms of mineral depletion has not come to pass,” he said. “It doesn’t show any real signs that it will. Things can change and can change a lot when they are driven by technology.”
In the meantime, there will be increasing concern for the environment, Buchanan said.
“A hundred and fifty years ago, nobody was talking about the Ogallala aquifer, they barely knew it existed,” Buchanan said. “And, in the 1870s, there was a lot of lead and zinc mining going on in southeastern Kansas that soon became a big environmental concern.”
Evaporation pits, developed less than a half century ago with oil and gas drilling, now are major concerns as the saltwater mixes with groundwater. And fracking, the process of shooting pressurized water, sand and chemicals under those wells, is currently coming under scrutiny amid accusations it contaminates groundwater.
Eastern Kansas – Manhattan, Topeka, Lawrence and the cities around Kansas City – will get more populated in the next 150 years. Wichita will keep growing as will all the towns north of Wichita along I-135 to Salina.
The communities north of Salina to the Nebraska state line and those east and west to the Missouri and Colorado state lines will all get smaller, as will anything west of Hutchinson.
“What’s happened as farmers have passed away, their land went into estates,” Hayden said. “Those estates were divided among heirs, most who don’t live in Kansas.”
Meanwhile , as fewer people live on farms, smaller communities will disappear or re-invent themselves.
“Towns are either growing or dying, they aren’t staying stagnant,” said Katie Eisenhour, executive director of the Scott City Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development. “Luckily, we are growing.”
From 2000 to 2010, the town’s population grew 73 percent. The town’s population now exceeds 4,000 residents, with a growing population of Hispanics shifting the dynamics of life in Scott City.
“If you don’t integrate and welcome and get people of other cultures involved at the government level, pretty soon you will have two separate communities,” she said. “We won’t tolerate that. People come here wanting to find jobs. And even with 3.5 percent unemployment, if you want to work, you’ll find a job.”
Towns like Hays will still be major hubs, said Toby Dougherty, the city manager of Hays, but communities around it will continue to dwindle.
Hays, because of its university and medical center, has attracted a lot of retirees. Dougherty wonders what will happen decades from now when the city’s assisted living and nursing homes are no longer able to keep their facilities full.
“If you look at some of these northwest Kansas counties, their towns reached their peak populations in 1930 and have been going downhill ever since,” Dougherty said. “Every county but Ellis has lost population. And that’s because Hays serves as a retail center.”
Losing a way of life
As small towns disappear, many fear that the sense of community for many Kansans will also disappear.
“If we lose just one small town, maybe it doesn’t matter,” said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which promotes rural culture.
“But losing the collection of all of them makes a difference in who and what Kansas is. People don’t know the value of small towns if they don’t live in them or are somehow connected to them.
“I can’t imagine a Kansas without half of its towns. But pretty soon it may lose three-fourths of its towns.”
Some of that shift already is taking place.
At Kansas State University in Manhattan – founded as an agricultural land grant college – more and more students are second- and third-generation city dwellers.
“Most of my students don’t come from farms,” said James Sherow, a history professor at Kansas State University and mayor of Manhattan. “Growing up on a farm is now part of a bygone era.”
Hayden, a baby boomer who grew up in Atwood in the far northwest corner of the state, said he fears what will happen with the loss of those small towns and farms.
“I saw the Greatest Generation, which for me was my mom and dad and all their friends, come back to the small towns after the war and start farming and creating businesses that become the backbone of their community,” Hayden said. “And in tiny Atwood, like elsewhere, people were loyal to their school, loyal to their church and their community. They were all involved in civic groups and government.
“What happened is that the Greatest Generation wasn’t replaced in small town America. The generations that came along after my parents’ generation didn’t find the appeal of small towns.
“As a result, there is no doubt a lot of those basic values have eroded.”