Some of the biggest headlines about the fate of the Ogallala aquifer have come out of the irrigated farmland in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
But Wyoming — in the middle of yet another drought — is emerging as another state with a possibly looming water crisis for farmers.
Wyomin Public Media recently shared the story of rancher Alan Kirkbride, whose raises cattle in southeastern Wyoming and relies on the aquifer, Horse Creek and other local watering holes for his his animals.
WPM says a neighbor has petitioned to drill eight high-capacity water wells that would drain 1.6 billion gallons of water a year from the aquifer, enough to supply a city of 10,000 people.
The applicants say they’re using the water for farming. But when pressed on whether they might transfer their water use fore oil-and-gas production or municipal supply, they say “possibly, but not likely.”
Generally, selling water in this manner is far more lucrative than using it for agricultural production, and Wyoming law says if water is available it can be used a long as it benefits Wyoming residents.
WPM says research bears out that when aquifers are drawn down and groundwater levels drop, creeks can dry up — which would threaten Kirkbride’s herd and possibly force him to spend a lot of money for deeper wells to reach the water table.
The applicants have been trying to get permits for more than a year and if they’re approved, Kirkbridge is cocnerned that southeast Wyoming will go arid like in other places that rely on the aquifer.
Attorney Reba Epler, who is fighting the permits for neighbors of the applicants, told state officials in a recent hearing that she knows what is at stake.
“I would like to point out, these are some of the oldest surface water rights in the state of Wyoming, some of the oldest ranches, some of the most magnificent places you have ever seen, that stand to be lost,” she said. “It makes me almost cry, because I've seen them and I've been on them and I know what will be lost," says Epler.
Normally when we’re talking about the aquifer it’s inefficient irrigation methods in agriculture that are fingered as the main culprit. But this case is a little different.
Western cities are booming and they need water — I get it. Energy indepenence is a plausible goal to ensure the stability of our country and our economy.
But to me, it looks like Wyoming is another place where the governor and state lawmakers need to step in make some hard decisions on how water rights are used and update their laws, so those who are trying to keep the world fed aren’t shoved into the ditch in the name of progress.