I’ve been following developments with the beleaguered Ogallala aquifer for a few years now, and I can honestly say recent media reports about the status of this crucial water source have left me more confused than ever.
Just last summer, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was touting news that the aquifer’s water levels in Kansas were stabilizing, implying that some progress was being made with conservation measures. There is indeed some progress being made.
But this week, a report by the Denver Post, distributed by the Associated Press warned the aquifer shrank twice as fast of the past 6 years compared with the previous 60.
The drawdown has become so severe, the newspaper says, that streams are drying at a rate of 6 miles per year, and some highly resilient fish are disappearing. In rural areas, farmers and ranchers still worry they will no longer have enough water for their livestock and crops as the aquifer is depleted.
The Ogallala aquifer underlies 175,000 square miles and includes parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas. The region produces $35 billion in crops annually. But the aquifer lost 10.7 million acre-feet of storage between 2013 and 2015, the U.S. Geological Survey said earlier this year.
The NRCS has, since 2011, been spearheading the “Ogallala Aquifer Initiative” using a comprehensive set of conservation practices to reduce aquifer water use, improve water quality and enhance economic viability of crop and rangelands in the affected states.
Conservation activities are targeted in focus areas where NRCS and partners have identified projects that conserve water and strengthen agricultural operations. NRCS provides farmers and ranchers with technical and financial assistance to implement a variety of conservation practices, including improving irrigation efficiency, managing nutrients, implementing prescribed grazing and other conservation systems.
Funding comes from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and partners typically leverage additional funds in focus areas. Starting in 2015, funds were targeted to smaller focus areas identified by state and local partners as high priorities for OAI technical and financial assistance.
The NRCS has set five milestones for its work with producers and partners to complete by 2018. These milestones include the conservation of 102,320 acre-free of water, improving irrigation efficiency on 49,400 acres, converting operations to dryland farming on 30,350 acres, installing 202 irrigation water -management systems, and applying nutrient management on 21,000 acres.
With 2018 approaching, the most recent “report card” issued by the NRCS for fiscal year 2016 shows that we’ve not hit the halfway mark of any of these five milestones. The NRCS says it’s invested $74 million in the project since 2011.
Brownback, who has been among the most vocal on the aquifer’s issues, predicted earlier this month at a water conference in his state that there will be development of a conservationist’s mentality, including widespread use of technology to monitor soil moisture levels, that will reduce water consumption and expand crop yields.
“We know what we need to do. Let’s just get it done,” Brownback said before 600 attendees, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. “What can I do in my operation, on my farm or in my community to save the water? I don’t need to have somebody else to tell me what to do.”
“There’s never going to be enough federal and state money. We’ve got to motivate people to take action themselves,” added Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office.
There was a time during the mid-1980s when water rights becoming a very big issue with the Great Lakes states, as discussions began — and still continue — about diverging water from the lakes to other regions of the U.S. hit by drought or other crises. That spurred governors from those states to start discussing the importance of their water resources and the need to safeguard them.
This eventually led to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, a legally binding interstate compact among Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The compact details how the states manage the use of the Great Lakes Basin’s water supply.
The challenge here isn't the export of water, but conservation of what’s already present. With the very slow progress being made on the Ogallala — and the serious consequences citizens face with its decline — maybe it’s time for the governors of these eight Great Plains states served by the aquifer to sit down in the same room and hammer out a more aggressive plan to sell farmers on water conservation, or perhaps find a way to secure additional federal funding for incentives.
I'm sure it would be very difficult to get multiple states to agree on how anything should be done. But the approach being taken now doesn’t seem to be working fast enough.