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Reductions at forefront of aquifer life

1/15/2014

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

COLBY -- The suggestions on how best to slow the depletion of water from the Ogallala Aquifer were varied, but the focus kept returning to water-use reductions.

And comments offered Thursday seemed to suggest any cuts need to be imposed across-the-board, rather than in small areas.

Meetings in Colby and Goodland late last week provided the opportunity for irrigators in the Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 4 to offer suggestions on what the water supplies in Kansas should look like in 50 years.

Gov. Sam Brownback in October called on state water agencies to develop the 50-year vision, citing a study suggesting the Ogallala will be 70-percent depleted if nothing's done. In the eastern part of the state, the focus is on sediment filling federal reservoirs, limiting the ability to supply water to cities and industry during drought.

As the state's water planning agency, the Kansas Water Office has been leading a series of public meetings, virtually all of which have been aimed at irrigators or groups representing them.

KWO Director Tracy Streeter said the meetings soon will turn to the general public, although there's nothing yet on the schedule.

Instead, there's a public update slated for the May Kansas Water Authority meeting in advance of the first public draft of the vision document that ultimately will be forwarded to Brownback in November.

Despite all that, Thursday's discussion presented something of a mixed message to the smaller-than-expected crowd of nearly 150.

On the one hand, deputy secretary of agriculture Jeff Bontrager detailed the importance of water for Kansas agriculture.

"It's critical to move the economy," he said.

But the Kansas Geological Survey's Brownie Wilson presented information showing water-use reductions of approximately 20 percent across the northwest part of the state could stem the depletion of the Ogallala.

Reductions would vary by county, Wilson said, based on water use and recharge.

Cheyenne County, he said, would require a 32-percent reduction, Sherman County 32.4 percent. But the reductions would fall to the east, 27.6 percent in Thomas County and 13.5 percent in Sheridan County.

Wilson said preliminary measurements on the newly formed Local Enhanced Management Area west of Hoxie suggest the eastern reaches of the district continued to see sharp declines while the western area moderated.

An observer said there's no way to tell what effect the LEMA has had with only one year of data.

It also was pointed out water still was being pumped right up to the issuance of the Dec. 31 order establishing the LEMA effective a day later, a move that would slash water use by approximately 20 percent.

"I'd like to hear what you want the water resources to look like in 50 years," Streeter said midway through the two-hour session. "Do we want dryland farming in northwest Kansas?"

That idea was rejected.

Instead, the idea of a LEMA was proposed, but several people complained about the small area it affected, suggesting instead a broader area.

"I don't think everything can be handled in a voluntary mode," another unidentified man said of how best to get reductions in water use.

But there also was concern about giving up water now and making sure another irrigator didn't continue pumping and use up what was set aside.

"It's hard to be convinced that if I cut back 20 percent, that the water will be there in 50 years," the unidentified irrigator said, "unless you do that across the board and everyone does it."