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Kansas officials criticized over plan to truck in 6,000 gallons of water from Missouri River

The long arms of pivot irrigation rigs deliver water from the Ogallala Aquifer to circular fields of corn in northwestern Kansas.
Dan Charles
/
NPR
The long arms of pivot irrigation rigs deliver water from the Ogallala Aquifer to circular fields of corn in northwestern Kansas.

The project is meant to prove that large transfers of water could be a tool to help save the disappearing Ogallala Aquifer, which provides irrigation and drinking water to western Kansas. But other groundwater management officials say it’s a distraction from the far more urgent task of conservation.

An agency charged with conserving groundwater in arid western Kansas plans to truck thousands of gallons of water from the Missouri River nearly 400 miles almost to the Colorado border.

Half of the 6,000 gallons drawn from the river will be poured onto a property in Wichita County. The other half will be taken into Colorado.

Groundwater Management District 3, in southwestern Kansas, received a permit from state water authorities for the project, which is expected to cost the district $7,000. The district manager Mark Rude said it’s designed to prove large-scale movement of water could be a tool to keep the Ogallala Aquifer from drying up.

“Basically moving water from where it’s in excess to where it’s in short supply,” Rude said.

But other groundwater management officials say it’s a distraction from the far more urgent task of conserving water that’s quickly disappearing from under Kansans’ feet.

“For one, it’s a waste of water,” said Shannon Kenyon, who manages Groundwater Management District 4 in northwest Kansas.

She said: “Their idea instead of telling their producers, ‘You need to cut back,’ is to just dump water all over western Kansas.”

The Ogallala Aquifer, America’s largest underground reservoir, has been in decline for decades — since soon after farmers started pumping the underground water to cultivate crops following World War II. Some parts of the aquifer have half the water they had before irrigation on the aquifer began. In some areas, there’s only about 10 years of water left.

Loss of the aquifer would fundamentally alter life in western Kansas and destroy farmers’ livelihoods. There’s little surface water since streams that reliably flowed through the area in 1961 all but disappeared, according to the Kansas Geological Survey.

Officials have pursued a number of strategies to help the aquifer, including equipping farmers with probes to measure moisture under the ground to help them water their crops more conservatively without reducing their yield, and reaching agreements with farmers to cut their use.

Rude’s hope with the effort to truck water is to prove that transferring water from where it’s more plentiful or where an area has become flooded is feasible. One such idea is known as the Kansas Aqueduct, which would pump water uphill from the Missouri River at Kansas’ eastern border to western Kansas.

There are no formal efforts underway to make the longshot project a reality, Rude said, but his district’s website houses a presentation on the idea, and he has touted it to the Kansas Legislature in the past.

Rude said going through the regulatory process necessary to truck the water across the state helps walk water officials through the process in preparation for whatever larger project might come along.

“And so what’s the right project? Well, I don’t know. We don’t know yet,” Rude said. “… So you take steps and you evaluate and you learn, and this (proof of concept) is part of that process for the board of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District.”

Earl Lewis, the state’s chief engineer, who signed off on the permit, said the state’s Division of Water Resources didn’t see the district’s project as comparable to a larger water transfer.

“You’re not really demonstrating that you could transfer a large amount of water by hauling 6,000 gallons of water across the state,” Lewis said. “I mean, that happens all the time in the state of Kansas.”

Kansas House Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, called it a “political stunt.”

“For the sake of local farmers and families, and for the future of our entire state, I hope GMD 3 starts to take its responsibility seriously, and soon,” she said. “Time is running out.”

Groundwater management districts 1 and 4, which are north of Rude’s near the Colorado border, are taking different approaches to saving the Ogallala. Shannon Kenyon in district 4 said western Kansas needs to focus on conserving water now while an aqueduct could take decades to get off the ground.

“Am I against it? No,” she said. “But do I think it’s fantasy? Yes.”

Katie Duhram, who manages Groundwater Management District 1, noted the district’s board chose not to participate in the project though the Wichita County farm that will receive 3,000 gallons of water lies in the district’s territory.

Durham said it’s always smart to look for projects that could help in the future.

“But I think it’s also important to take steps towards managing the resource that you have in order to address decline in the Ogallala in order to protect the local communities because again,” Durham said.

Both Durham and Kenyon’s districts have established local enhanced management areas, or LEMAs, which allow the GMD to enforce reductions in groundwater use. Durham’s district is working to establish a LEMA covering the whole district.

Rude said his district is conserving water by providing information to well owners on the amount they’ve pumped from the aquifer, how that compares to their neighbors and how they’re affecting the long-term health of the aquifer.

“That information is key for people in their voluntary conservation efforts as well as discussions for collective limits to further conserve the groundwater supply,” Rude said.

At this time, he said, there are no discussions about establishing a LEMA to require reductions.

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Allison Kite