Don't cry, the spigot still drips
I'm an old man. Frankly, my dears, I'm not sure I still give a damn. True, there's been a resurgence of pious rhetoric here in Brownbackistan -- but I've heard it all before. Even the old Missouri River to southwest Kansas aqueduct dream to keep the corn growing and the feedlots full. Hey, there's always more water over the hill -- or down the slope. Go git 'er.
I once raised hackles by observing the Ogallala mining debacle was the predictable result of drunks running the liquor store. Sorry, but the metaphor has merit. Ogallala mining is a privatized addiction to guzzle a rapidly declining but temporarily exhilarating public resource.
That addiction is represented by the irrigation-feedlot (now ethanol) boozers, including the enablers and rationalizers who not only allow the addiction -- but have attended and enjoyed the partying. It is perpetuated by a biased water governance system almost nobody has bothered to challenge.
As the water level gets nearer and nearer the bottom of the bucket, so to speak, contaminants will be more concentrated, and the water itself more expensive to withdraw.
The options for a more sustainable use largely will have been spent. The hangover is yet to come. It'll last a long time, and affect a lot of us, our kids, and our grandkids in this region. But no big deal, eh? We still got the Super Bowl to drool over.
Why has it been this way? Well, fundamentally, it's the consumerist, anti-regulatory, anti-environmentalist mentality too many celebrate in this greatest of all nations. We can have whatever we want and as much of it as we want. The earth and other incidental inhabitants be damned. Eat, drink and be merry.
In religious terms, it's called dominionism: "God said, Let us make humans in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." (Genesis 1:26.) And, the Ogallala Aquifer as well.
Dominionist theology is challenged in Psalm 24. "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein." St. Paul concurs: "For the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof." "Humans are called to be stewards of God's property." (1 Corinthians 10:26)
One of the lies by repetition the water-holics and their enablers have all too successfully sold is the notion a water appropriation right is a "real property right -- which they interpret to mean ownership of the water -- a dominionist point of view. So, if you take away their "property," you gotta pay 'em.
Here's the legal refutation they'd rather didn't exist -- but does. "Surface or groundwaters of the state may be appropriated as herein provided. Such appropriation shall not constitute ownership of such water, and appropriation rights shall remain subject to the principle of beneficial use." KSA 82a-707: (a) Read that again, please.
The last irrigator I pointed that out to said, "Bob, that's just one sentence in the law."
Yeah, well, he's right about that, but it's a pretty damned straightforward sentence I'd say. And, one that needs to be repeatedly shouted in politicians' ears at every opportunity -- former Ag Secretary now Gov. Sam Brownback, irrigation friendly western Kansas legislators, members of Groundwater Mining Districts, the biased Kansas Water Authority, the Department of Agriculture, including the chief engineer at the Division of Water Resources. And, of course, a laundry list of well-heeled ag lobby groups.
What appropriation right-holders do have is a permit to use real property -- but not a deed to it. It's a little like having a legal right to drive a truck you don't own a specified number of miles per year. Nothing assures the number of miles cannot be reduced by the owners. Those owners would be the people of Kansas who maintain the title and are collectively responsible for the broader public interest. Stewardship.
A few years back, I spoke with a gentleman who worked as a subordinate of then Chief Engineer Guy Gibson of the Division of Water Resources, the agency that at least grants and theoretically oversees water rights. That was the late 1950s. The man, now safely retired, shook his head sidewise, sadly I thought.
He said, "One day I asked Gibson, 'Aren't we seriously over-appropriating this water?' Guy said we sure were. I said, 'What will make that stop?' And Guy said, 'Well, maybe when enough people begin to holler.' "
Do I think that's apt to happen? In Brownbackistan? Nah. It'll be too little -- and 50 years too late. I'm not sure I still give a damn anyway. Do you?
Bob Hooper is a fourth-generation western Kansan who writes from his home in Bogue.