Eagle editorial: Act now to preserve water

The heavy rainfall from late July through mid-August reduced drought conditions in many counties throughout the state, including Sedgwick. But longer-term concerns about water remain – particularly preserving the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas.

That’s why it was good that Gov. Sam Brownback called last week for creating a vision of where water conservation should be by 2050, and then working backward to set benchmarks needed to reach that vision. Foresight and collaboration are essential if Kansas is going to preserve its water supply and protect its economy for future generations.

Brownback made the request during a meeting in Dodge City of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors. The council and the Kansas Water Office plan to spend the next six to nine months developing that vision, working with various stakeholders.

Water and agriculture officials discussed at the meeting both how valuable the Ogallala Aquifer is to the Kansas economy and how much it is in danger – which is why a balanced approach to water conservation is needed.

Chad Bontrager, assistant secretary of agriculture, said that irrigated cropland in the Ogallala region was responsible for $1.75 billion in corn production and $384 billion in retail beef production in 2012, the Garden City Telegram reported. That corn production results in 25,000 jobs and about $1.2 billion added to the Kansas economy every year, he said, while beef production supports an additional 32,000 jobs and adds about $2 billion to the economy.

“This leads to a total effect of about 56,000 people employed and $3.2 billion in value-added,” Bontrager said. “And keep in mind, that’s just talking about irrigation for corn, for cattle, for beef. There are a lot of other pieces to the economic puzzle there.”

But Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, warned that the amount of water being used is not sustainable. He said that some areas of southwest Kansas have had a 70-foot decline in water levels in the aquifer during the past 15 years.

A new study by Kansas State University researchers reinforces that concern. It said that if current irrigation trends continue, 69 percent of the groundwater stored in the aquifer will be depleted in 50 years.

The encouraging news is that, under Brownback’s leadership, there has been progress on water conservation. Last year, the Legislature repealed the state’s 67-year-old “use-it-or-lose-it” policy. Improved irrigation technology and crop genetics are helping reduce water use. Brownback also has held high-profile summits to get farmers and other stakeholders engaged in finding solutions.

Conservation measures can have a significant impact. The K-State study said that immediately reducing water use could extend the aquifer’s life and increase net agricultural production through 2110.

David Steward, one of the K-State researchers, said they wrote the study “for the family farmer who wants to pass his land on to his grandchildren knowing that they will have the same opportunities that farmers do today.” The issue also has importance for the entire state and its economy.

“Society has an opportunity now to make changes with tremendous implications for future sustainability and livability,” the study said. But it concluded with a warning that Kansas must heed:

“The time to act will soon be past.”

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee