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Western Kansas family knows value of water

Published on -7/21/2014, 10:21 AM

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SALINA (MCT) — Irrigation was never an option for Rooks County farmer-rancher Jerry McReynolds, but for the past eight months, securing water just for home use has been sketchy.
"We've always been short of water in our area, but we managed to get by," he said. "During this drought, it really got serious."
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The McReynolds' domestic well went dry in October 2013. Making matters worse, service from Rural Water District No. 3 has not been reliable during the day, when most are using from the system.
"I wash clothes and dishes after my husband goes to bed," said Diane McReynolds, Jerry's wife.
She shared the dilemma of having 15 family members at home for Christmas and not nearly enough water.
"On good days, we had streams (from faucets) the size of a pencil," Diane McReynolds said.
Frustration peaks when she has shampoo in her hair and the water stops, forcing her to rinse out the suds with bottled water.
"It's like being in the pioneer days. It's pretty sad," Diane McReynolds said.
Rooks County is one area of Kansas where water isn't taken for granted.
The McReynolds spread has been woefully short of rain during most of the past decade -- this wet summer notwithstanding.
"We've had some rain, no big ones, but they've been very helpful," Jerry McReynolds said.
The dryland farm and cow-calf operation raises wheat, milo and forage sorghum, and corn and soybeans "as moisture permits."
He has participated in the public meetings being conducted as part of the development of the Governor's Vision for the Future of Water in Kansas.
"It's (water) precious. I don't know how you can get that point across," McReynolds said. "We've undervalued it for years, and that's partially why we're having problems now."
Water district can't keep up
He and a number of neighbors are in the same predicament, with personal water wells that are not reliable. They're members of a rural water district that can't keep up with demand.
So what's a farmer and rancher to do with thirsty critters and humans?
At least twice a week, McReynolds hops in a truck and drives 12 miles to Woodston, where he fills two 1,500-gallon water tanks.
"We've always had to haul a little bit of water, any time we had cattle in a location where we didn't have any," said McReynolds, 67.
But last October, he said, "our home well petered out. It had only done that once before in my lifetime."
Domestic demand picks up
Because of a lack of rain, demand for rural water has picked up considerably, McReynolds said.
"You don't take a shower during the day. It's 4 in the morning or late at night," he said. "We joke that if we're invited to someone's house, we can bring cookies but no water. There's not enough of that to go around."
Rooks County Commissioner Larry Poore, who lives southeast of Woodston, uses a rural water line for domestic use, but he hauls a lot of water for cattle.
Very little irrigation
There is very little irrigation in Rooks County, he said. Some wells water crops in western reaches, pulling from the Ogallala Aquifer. Seepage downstream of Webster Reservoir occasionally provides enough to irrigate, but the vast majority of farming in Rooks County is without irrigation.
Water is a big concern, he said, thanks to several years of dry conditions.
A few big rains in the county during June put water in ponds, Poore said.
"If we don't continue to get rain, domestic water use will become a big problem all the time, too," he said. "It's been very hard to find enough water to keep oil drilling rigs running."
Underground water precious
Underground water supplies are hard to find these days, but farmers such as McReynolds keep looking. Hauling water runs him nearly $400 a month during peak demand, and the rural water bills range from $300 to $500 a month for domestic and livestock water combined.
At that rate, he said, it wouldn't take long to justify spending thousands of dollars on a well. It cost him $26,600 last fall to put in a pasture well -- $17,600 for the drilling of eight holes, seven that turned out to be dry, and another $9,000 for equipping the well when he hit water. In addition, McReynolds paid a water witcher roughly $200 in two visits, to help him find water.
In the past 20 years, 18 test holes have been drilled on the farm, with no results.
"I'm willing to try anything. You do all these things you have to do, because water is a priority," McReynolds said. "It's essential to life, essential to economics."
He tries to curb water use on the farm the way some people pinch pennies.
"We don't always value or protect it the way we should," McReynolds said. "When I go to town and I see folks watering their lawns and it's running out in the streets, I kinda cringe."
Some selling out
Some of his neighbors have given up and sold out because they've grown tired of hauling water and didn't want to pass on the chore to another generation.
"It's gonna make a ghost town out of this area if we have no water," Diane McReynolds said.
"In my lifetime, the farms that have survived are the farms that have water," Jerry McReynolds said.
He's careful not to blame irrigation or Rural Water District No. 3 for his water woes.
"Here, the problem has everything to do with drought," he said. "This helps you realize how important water is to us, and to Kansas."
Started in 1970s
The water district started in the late 1970s with 200 taps. Some people have three or four, said James Ochampaugh, a water district board member and a past chairman. Today, there are 280 taps, most of them pasture outlets.
Ochampaugh, a farmer and rancher, said he and his wife, Ann, the former longtime RWD No. 3 secretary, have dedicated 40 years to the water project.
"The district has served a lot of people and gotten them a lot of water," James Ochampaugh said.
The district is in the process of expanding its well field and increasing the size of water lines. RWD No. 3 was built with government help, he said, but funds were limited.
"There were miles and miles of 2-inch line that should have been 3 to 4 inches," Ochampaugh said. "We didn't have the money to do that, and it has led to people struggling, but this is a cooperative effort and everybody is part of it. We hope to have everybody on the same team."

(c)2014 The Salina Journal (Salina, Kan.)
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