Tribes hold wild card in high-stakes supply game — E&E Publishing

Many Indian reservations are located in or near contentious river basins where demand for water outstrips supply. Map courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.
Many Indian reservations are located in or near contentious river basins where demand for water outstrips supply. Map courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Here’s a report from Nnie Snider writing for E&E Publishing. Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:

It’s not just modern engineering that made Arizona’s desert bloom.

Thirty miles south of downtown Phoenix sits dusty land that was once farmed by one of the most advanced agricultural civilizations of prehistoric times. As far back as 300 B.C., the Hohokam people hand-dug a network of canals through the Gila River’s rich floodplains, diverting spring runoff to nourish their fields.

But by the end of the 19th century, their descendants’ fields were parched and dead, thanks to upstream diversions by white settlers.

“That era among our people is called the time of starvation,” said Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, the top elected official at the Gila River Indian Community, home of the Hohokam’s descendants, the Pima, and the Maricopa tribe.

“Not only had our crops dried up because of lack of water, we were known as ranchers and a lot of our animals died because of lack of water,” he said. “We were really on the brink of extinction.”

Over the next century, the federal government put its financial and engineering might to work developing water projects around the reservation to benefit surrounding communities, but rarely the tribes.

Their fields dry, the Pima and Maricopa shifted from their traditional diet to a Western one, and the community’s diabetes rate skyrocketed to one of the highest in the country.

Traditional ways — weaving baskets of marsh grasses, using herbal medicines made from river sediment — were lost, too.

The painful irony: The tribes were technically the first in line for water.

Thanks to a 1908 Supreme Court ruling, tribes almost always have the most senior claim to water in the West, where water rights are prioritized based on when the resource was first put to beneficial use and reservations dot the landscape.

Rights mean little without a lawyer to defend them, though, and for generations, tribes were too poor to afford representation.

But in recent years, in part because of groundwork laid by the Native American civil rights movement, tribes are increasingly heading to court to assert their rights.

There’s a problem: While the high court was clear that tribes have rights to water, it did not say to how much.

In many cases, tribes claim a share large enough that it could crowd out neighboring cities’ and farmers’ water supplies and stanch future development.

Tribes along the main stem of the Colorado River in the Lower Basin have some of the few court-determined rights because of a 1963 Supreme Court decision covering larger battles over the river between California and Arizona. Today, just those few tribes have rights to roughly 20 percent of the Lower Basin’s flow — an amount that is more than five times the allocation for the entire state of Nevada…

Now, as booming populations and extended droughts have stoked competition for water supplies across the West, the uncertainty around tribes’ potentially massive claims to water in already overstretched river basins is posing real constraints on communities and businesses.

“It’s a very significant set of claims that tribes have on very limited and critical water supplies across the West,” said Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor, who has worked on tribal water issues throughout his career. “It’s uncertainty — that’s what water managers don’t want.”

But lawsuits have largely proved fruitless for all sides.

When tribes win, they receive only a legal right to the water — dubbed a “paper water right” — often without the infrastructure or funding needed to get the water to the reservation and put it to use.

Meanwhile, endless appeals offer certainty for no one.

Instead, many tribes and communities have opted to sit down at the negotiating table in an effort to hash out an agreement that can get the tribes what they most need — wet water and sometimes other support for economic development — while protecting nontribal users and absolving the federal government of liability for failing to protect tribes’ rights.

Moreover, with all parties at the table, settlements are increasingly providing an opportunity to take a holistic look at issues across the basin and address other sticky issues like endangered species management or land ownership.

“I think generally we kind of look at these things as an opportunity to figure out how water in a particular basin’s going to be used in the future because in these negotiations, everything’s on the table, everybody’s involved,” Echohawk said.

“The question is, how do we get that peace in the valley? How do we learn to live together in a sustainable basin?” he said. “It comes down to a master plan for water in a particular basin for time in eternity.”

But settlements tend to rely on an infusion of federal cash to help make the pie larger for everyone, and that funding is getting harder to fight for in Congress…

Complex legal landscape

Two legal concepts drive conversations about tribal water rights.

The first, known as the Winters doctrine, stems from a 1908 Supreme Court case, Winters v. United States, relating to water rights at the Fort Belknap American Indian Reservation in central Montana.

It holds that when Congress set aside land for an Indian reservation, it also intended to reserve the water necessary to make that land a permanent homeland. The same doctrine has also been applied to other federal reservations, like national parks.

But how much water does a homeland need?

Courts have generally looked to the purpose that Congress identified in establishing the reservation, which was often agricultural, even for tribes with no history of farming.

So to come up with a water right, experts would calculate how much reservation land could be farmed and how much water it would take to irrigate it — a complicated, time-consuming process that can result in a large amount of water for the tribe.

The second key legal concept relates to the federal government’s responsibility to tribes.

In a “trust responsibility,” the government, through the Interior Department, has a legal obligation to protect tribal treaty rights, land and other assets, and carry out federal laws relating to tribes.

Court rulings have made it clear that trust obligation includes protecting tribes’ water rights in the face of outside development — something the government frequently failed to do.

Meanwhile, some experts contend that the lack of infrastructure development for tribes is also a breach of that trust responsibility.

On the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest, poorest reservation, which spans a broad swath of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, an estimated 40 percent of households lack access to running water.

There, families must travel dozens of miles to haul water from centralized wells or wait for the once-a-month delivery from a local church. Without water, economic development is nearly impossible.

But exactly what that federal liability means in dollars and cents is another major open question.

One of the highest-profile cases over breach of trust was a long-running class-action lawsuit relating to the Interior Department’s mismanagement of income from tribal trust lands. That case, Cobell v. Salazar, settled in 2009 for a whopping $3.4 billion.

But for water rights, there’s no solid precedent.

In part, that’s because neither side has wanted to take the risk to get a definitive answer.

For one thing, due to a 1952 appropriations rider, federal water rights like tribes’ can be adjudicated in state courts, which tribes tend to see as hostile to their interests.

Meanwhile, the country’s highest court is also seen as becoming less favorable to tribes.

The last major Indian water rights case to land before the Supreme Court was an appeal of a Wyoming state court’s decision that granted the Wind River Indian Reservation a large water right.

Then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recused herself from the case at the last moment, having discovered that her family’s ranch was part of a water adjudication that involved tribal water rights.

Without her, the high court reached a split, 4-4 decision that left the state court’s ruling in place.

But when Justice Thurgood Marshall’s papers were made public after his death, lawyers found a “ghost opinion” from O’Connor that would have overturned the Wyoming ruling and significantly revised the Winters doctrine.

All that leaves tribes gun-shy about a return trip to the high court.

“Tribes don’t want to be litigating these and going to the Supreme Court because they came within a whisper of losing it all in ’89, and in my view the Supreme Court has become a lot more hostile to tribal interests than the court we had at that time,” said Stanley Pollack, assistant attorney general for the Navajo Nation and a leading expert on tribal water rights.

Study finds High Plains Aquifer [Ogallala] peak use by state, overall usage decline

The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation's irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.
The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

Here’s the release from Kansas State University (Greg Tammen):

A new Kansas State University study finds that the over-tapping of the High Plains Aquifer’s groundwater beyond the aquifer’s recharge rate peaked in 2006. Its use is projected to decrease by roughly 50 percent in the next 100 years.

David Steward, professor of civil engineering, and Andrew Allen, civil engineering doctoral student, Manhattan, published those findings in the recent Agricultural Water Management study “Peak groundwater depletion in the High Plains Aquifer, projects from 1930 to 2110.” It is the first paper to look at and quantify peak aquifer depletion.

Researchers looked at the historic and projected future groundwater use rates of the eight states comprising the High Plains Aquifer. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas — eight agriculturally important states. It provides 30 percent of the irrigated water for the nation’s agriculture and is pivotal in food production.

This latest study builds on the 2013 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study in which Steward and colleagues forecasted the future of the Ogallala Aquifer in Kansas. Researchers expanded their projections to include wells in Kansas that were both depleted and steady in their historic groundwater levels as well as the eight states that rely on the High Plains Aquifer. A total of 3,200 Kansas wells and 11,000 wells from the other seven states were studied to understand their water depletion processes.

Allen wrote the computer code necessary to analyze massive amounts of geographic information systems data about the more than 14,000 wells using the aquifer. A logistic equation was developed to apply more than 300,000 well measurements to create a historical record of its water level and also its projected water level through 2110.

“When we did the Kansas study, it really focused on those wells in Kansas that were depleting,” Steward said. “We came up with a set of projections that looked at how long the water would last and how the depletion process would play out over time. With this study, we wanted to learn how the depletion in various locations plays into a larger picture of the aquifer.”

Steward and Allen found that the High Plains Aquifer’s depletion followed a south to north progression, with its depletion peaking in 2006 for the entire High Plains Aquifer. Overall, researchers saw that some portions of the aquifer are depleting while others are not. Texas peaked in 1999, New Mexico in 2002, Kansas in 2010, Oklahoma in 2012 and Colorado is projected to peak in 2023. Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming are not projected to reach peaks before 2110.

“We are on a declining trend right now for water use in irrigated agriculture,” Steward said. “As we project what happens in the future following the existing water use patterns, the amount of depletion and the amount of water that comes out of the aquifer will decrease by about half over the next 100 years.”

Additionally, researchers saw that the water depletion rates for each state in the High Plains Aquifer follow a similar bell-shaped curve pattern as the one for oil depletion in the U.S. modeled by the Hubbert peak theory.

Pump photo via Kansas State University
Pump photo via Kansas State University

While water is a finite resource, Steward said the intent behind the study is not raise alarm, but rather encourage proactivity to manage and preserve this resource.

“This study helps add to the dialogue of how is it that we manage water and the effects of the choices that we make today,” Steward said. “It has the same kind of message of our previous paper, which is that our future is not set; it’s not cast. The projections we show are projections based on the data we have available that show the trends based on how we used water. People have the opportunities to make choices about the way that things are done, and the findings from this study help add to the dialogue.”

The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded the study. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Kansas Geological Survey contributed decades of information about the High Plains Aquifer and the Ogallala Aquifer for analysis.

Republican River Basin: Wells in a tug of war with senior rights

Republican River Basin by District
Republican River Basin by District

From the Republican River Water Conservation District via The Julesburg Advocate:

In an effort to inform well owners of the legal actions taken by the Jim Hutton Educational Foundation, the Board of Directors of the Republican River Water Conservation District voted to provide the following basic information.

In February 2015, the Hutton Foundation sued State Engineer Dick Wolfe and others. The lawsuit makes no claim for relief against individual well owners but if successful the Hutton Foundation would demand the State Engineer force the shut-down of groundwater pumping to supply water for the senior water rights owned by the Hutton Foundation.

On September 30, 2015, the Colorado Water Court ordered the Hutton Foundation to notify well owners that everyone owning groundwater rights in the Northern High Plains Basin will be forced to abide with the final outcome of this lawsuit.

Recently well owners received a legal notice of this lawsuit from the Hutton Foundation. This puts the use of your wells and your legal rights at risk. You must respond if you intend to protect your rights.

The RRWCD received the same legal notice you received. This lawsuit threatens the use of the wells in the Compact Compliance Pipeline wellfield and the ability to stay in compliance with the Republican River Compact.

The RRWCD Board voted to take action to protect these wells. This is likely to be a very complex legal proceeding and will require significant time and effort. It is very important that well owners consider what you should do to protect your rights. There are several options available:

1.) An individual can hire an attorney to represent them.

2.) An individual can contact your local groundwater management district. It may be possible for

3.) Individuals can join into groups and together hire an attorney to represent their group.

4.) Individuals, but not corporations or other entities can proceed without an attorney. If you each groundwater district to ask their legal counsel to represent the well owners as a whole in their district.
proceed on your own, you will be responsible for filing all required paperwork and meet all required deadlines.

You can choose not to respond to this court case. If you choose to participate in this legal action or not your water right will be subject to the decision of the court regarding this lawsuit.

Once you involve yourself in the lawsuit you can’t simply stop participating. To be released from the lawsuit you will be required to receive an order from the Court. It is possible you will have to pay costs after the legal action is finalized if the Hutton Foundation is successful.

Everyone’s situation is different. Please consult with an attorney or other professional to help you decide how to protect your irrigation rights. As stated in the legal notice if you desire to participate, you must file your answer or other response with the Water Court in Greeley within 35 days after the last publication on November 6, 2015. In otherwords your response must be filed no later than December 10, 2015.

A copy of the Complaint filed by the Jim Hutton Educational Foundation in February is available on the RRWCD web site: http://www.republicanriver.com. You can contact the RRWCD office (970) 332-3552 if you have additional questions or concerns but the staff will not provide you with legal advice.

This lawsuit could have devastating effects on the economy of Northeastern Colorado. Irrigation contributes to the viability of every community in the Basin including our schools, hospitals, law enforcement, fire protection, etc. Whether you have irrigated crops or not you will be affected by the outcome of this lawsuit. It is your responsibility to be informed in making your best decision on how to protect your rights.

The Republican River Water Conservation District Board of Directors elects new president

South Fork of the Republican River
South Fork of the Republican River

From The Yuma Pioneer (Tony Rayl):

The Republican River Water Conservation District Board of Directors has a new president for the first time in its history.

Dennis Coryell of Burlington has held that position since the RRWCD was formed one decade ago. Fellow Burlington resident Tim Pautler also has been a board officer since the inception, the only holdovers from the original executive committee.

However, that changed a bit last week when the board held its annual officer elections, during its regular quarterly meeting held in Wray.

The board voted Rod Lenz as the president, but that was the only change to the Executive Committee. Greg Larson was the only candidate for vice president. Pautler remains as secretary, beating a challenge from Rod Mason. Incumbent Byron Weathers and Wil Bledsoe were the candidates for treasurer, with Weathers voted to remain in that role…

Six board seats also were up for appointment for new three-year terms. All the current board members were appointed to new terms — Stan Laybourn, representing Washington County; Wil Bledsoe, Lincoln County; Wayne Skold, Sedgwick County; Jack Dowell, W-Y Ground Water Management District; Brent Deterding, Central Yuma Ground Water Management District; and Coryell as the Plains District’s representative.

Pipeline

Dick Wolfe, Colorado’s State Engineer, reported to the board about negotiations with Kansas and Nebraska in regards to Colorado’s compact compliance pipeline, as well as credit to be received for draining Bonny Reservoir.

He said if the states can agree to an action plan by November 1, the agreement of operating the pipeline will automatically renew for 2016. He said the three states have met monthly all year, and came to a “conceptual agreement” on September 26, on the action plan. Wolfe said he expects it will be finalized when the three states meet October 28-29 in Manhattan, Kansas.

Thursday: Republican River Water Conservation District board meeting in Wray

Wray Colorado
Wray Colorado

From The Yuma Pioneer (Tony Rayl):

Approving the 2016 budget, and electing officers for the Executive Committee are among the agenda items for the Republican River Water Conservation District Board of Directors’ regular quarterly meeting, Thursday, October 8, in Wray.

The meeting will be held at Cobblestone Inn & Suites on Highway 385 north of Wray beginning at 10 a.m. Public comment will be heard at 1 p.m.

A hearing will be held on the proposed 2016 budget, followed by consideration and approval of the budget.

It also is time for new terms for some of the 15-member board, as well as elect officers for the Executive Committee. New terms will begin for directors representing Washington, Sedgwick and Lincoln counties, as well as the W-Y, Central Yuma, and Plains ground water management districts.

The compact compliance pipeline will remain in the forefront. The board is scheduled to approve the application to the Central Yuma Ground Water Management District for the export of water from wells within the Central Yuma district for the pipeline. The board also is set to receive a a report from the State Engineer’s and Attorney General’s offices on negotiations with Kansas regarding the pipeline and the Bonny arbitrations. Some of that report might be in executive session if negotiation and litigation strategy is going to be discussed.

A special meeting is held each fall in Greeley. The board will be asked to approve a resolution to hold the special meeting.

Discussion of the 2016 Ogallala Aquifer Initiative will be held, as well as other matters. The board will hear reports from General Manager Deb Daniel, as well as from the district’s engineer and legal counsel.

Cobblestone Inn & Suites is located at 35952 Highway 385.

For further information about the meeting, please contact Daniel at 332-3552 or email her at deb.daniel@rrwcd.com. The RRWCD’s website is http://www.republicanriver.com.

Republican River: Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska optimistic after latest agreement

RRCA resolution signing August 27, 2015. From left to right: David Barfield, Dick Wolfe and Jeff Fassett(Photo courtesy RRCA)
RRCA resolution signing August 27, 2015. From left to right: David Barfield, Dick Wolfe and Jeff Fassett(Photo courtesy RRCA)

From the Kansas Department of Agriculture:

Republican River Compact Adjustments to Benefit Basin Water Users

(Lincoln, Neb.) Today, the states of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska have reached an agreement that will ensure more certainty to the basin’s water users in both Nebraska and Kansas. The agreement, in the form of a Resolution approved by the Republican River Compact Administration (RRCA), was achieved through collaborative negotiations that began in April 2015 and will provide timely notice and access to water for the 2016 irrigation season.
The agreement provides additional flexibility for Nebraska to achieve its Compact obligations while ensuring that the interests of Kansas are protected. The additional flexibility will allow the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources to provide a portion of the forecasted compliance water early in 2016 and provide any additional shortfall later in 2016 and through April 1, 2017. This also provides some improved operational predictability for Nebraska water users in that water users will not be subjected to closing notices related to the 2016 irrigation season.

The 2016 agreement builds upon the agreement reached for the 2015 irrigation season with further beneficial developments for water users. This agreement provides more advanced notice to irrigators in the basin of compliance activities that will likely occur in 2016, allowing for an advanced planning period producers desire for their efficiently run operations.

The States’ agreement is contingent upon the Nebraska and the Kansas Bostwick Irrigation Districts, working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, – reaching agreement on modifications of certain contract provisions contained in their Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) also adopted last year. Thus, ensuring the availability of the water pumped from Nebraska augmentation projects for RRCA compliance.

Current RRCA Chairman, Gordon W. “Jeff” Fassett, Director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said, “Today’s agreement is good news for Nebraska water users and represents the continuation of the cooperative and positive collaboration we’ve fostered between our states as we work to find mutually agreeable solutions that best serve our citizens. Additionally, we are hopeful that this positive momentum will continue to move us closer to the goal of securing a long-term agreement. With significantly more planning time, Nebraska’s water users will have greater certainty in their water supply and make the best decisions for their operations.”

“We are pleased to collaborate with Nebraska and Colorado as we continue to develop balanced and fair water solutions benefiting all of the basin’s water users that reflects good water management,” said Kansas Commissioner David Barfield. “This fourth in our series of recent agreements with Nebraska allows Kansas to make effective use of its water supply in 2016 and allows the states additional time and experience with Nebraska’s compliance activities as we continue to move toward long-term agreement.”

Colorado Commissioner Dick Wolfe said, “This agreement exemplifies the success that can be achieved through collaboration and cooperation of the RRCA and the water users in the basin.”

The RRCA is comprised of one member each from the States of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. The purpose of the RRCA is to administer the Republican River Compact. This Compact allocates the waters of the Republican River among the three states. The next RRCA annual meeting is scheduled for August of 2016 and will be hosted by the State of Colorado in a location of their choice.

Kansas’ invisible water crisis — The Wichita Eagle

ogallalahighplainsdepletions2011thru2013viausgs

From The Wichita Eagle (Lindsay Wise):

…But irrigation soon could end on [Brant] Peterson’s southwest Kansas farm. The wells under his land in Stanton County are fast running dry as farmers and ranchers across the Great Plains pump the Ogallala faster than it can be replenished naturally.

Three of his wells are already dry.

Within five years, Peterson estimates, he likely won’t be able to irrigate at all.

Wet and dry: A country divided

While the east half of the country generally receives at least 25 inches of rain a year, much of the west is dryer.

This means much of our country’s corn and hogs are farmed west of the 100th meridian. Meanwhile, in the Great Plains, milo, or grain sorghum, has become a popular crop due to its reduced need for water, and cattle farming has long been popular out west…

Western Kansas’ only significant water source is the Ogallala…

The vast freshwater reservoir beneath the prairie formed 5 million to 10 million years ago as streams draining from the Rocky Mountains deposited water in the clay, sand and gravel beneath the Great Plains.

The water lay there undisturbed for epochs until enterprising homesteaders who settled the West discovered the liquid bonanza that would make their arid land bloom.

Now, in a geological blink of an eye, the Ogallala, which made the Great Plains the nation’s breadbasket, is in peril…

The disappearing water supply poses a twofold danger. It could end a way of life in a region where the land and its bounty have been purchased by the toil and sweat of generations of farmers.

It also threatens a harvest worth $21 billion a year to Kansas alone and portends a fast-approaching, and largely unstoppable, water crisis across the parched American West.

With water levels already too low to pump in some places, western Kansas farmers have been forced to acknowledge that the end is near. That harsh reality is testing the patience and imagination of those who rely on the land for their livelihoods.

As they look for survival, farmers are using cutting-edge technologies to make the most efficient use of the water they have left. They’re contemplating something almost unimaginable just a generation ago: voluntary pacts with their neighbors to reduce irrigation.

And many are investing their long-term hopes in an astronomically expensive water transportation project that isn’t likely ever to be built.

The Arkansas River, which once flowed out of Colorado into western Kansas, is nothing but a dry ditch now, its riverbed reduced to a rugged obstacle course for all-terrain vehicles.

And average rainfall here is just 14 to 16 inches a year, nowhere near enough to replace the water that farmers draw from the Ogallala.

Kansas enjoyed a rainier-than-normal spring this year, easing several years of drought conditions throughout the state. But the relief is temporary.

The storms that soaked the state in recent months won’t alter the Ogallala’s fate, experts say…

Once emptied, it would take 6,000 years to refill the Ogallala naturally…

The Ogallala Aquifer supplies water for 20 percent of the corn, wheat, sorghum and cattle produced in the U.S.

It sprawls 174,000 square miles across eight states, from South Dakota to Texas, and can hold more than enough water to fill Lake Huron and part of Lake Ontario.

But for every square mile of aquifer, there’s a well. About 170,000 of them. Ninety percent of the water pumped out is used to irrigate crops…

Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to address the rapid decline of the aquifer. Water rights holders in much of western Kansas had to install flow meters in all their wells starting in the mid-1990s. Soon all wells in Kansas will have to be metered. And the state government has stopped issuing new permits to pump water from the Ogallala in areas of western Kansas where water levels have dropped the most.

Now, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has pledged to make water policy a central pillar of his administration. The final draft of his 50-year “water vision” for the state, released in January, outlines an incentive and education-based approach focused on encouraging voluntary, coordinated conservation efforts by the farmers who have the most to lose by the aquifer’s decline.

So far, however, farmers have agreed to limit water use in just part of two northwestern counties. A group of farmers in Sheridan and Thomas counties established a Local Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA, in 2012 to cut water use by 20 percent over five years.

It seems to be working: In the first year, participants in the LEMA used about 2.5 inches less water for irrigation than their neighbors and produced just two bushels less per acre, on average.

A proposal to create another LEMA in west-central Kansas was voted down last year by water rights holders.

“The problem is everybody wants to be democratic, and you have people for and you have some people against,” said Bill Golden, an agricultural economist at Kansas State.

It isn’t easy to convince individuals to put their profits at risk to preserve a common resource, especially when some farmers have more water left than others, Golden said.

“But I think that we will probably see more LEMAs in the coming years,” he said. “That is the most acceptable answer. I mean, we’re going to run out of water. Nobody’s talking about saving the aquifer and not using the water. The question is, can we extend the life of the aquifer and make it a soft landing?”

For now, that leaves individual farmers making their own decisions about how best to manage water on their land.

Ten miles east of Peterson’s farm, in Grant County, Kan., Clay Scott parked his Dodge pickup on a country road and reached for his iPad.

A few hundred feet away, a solar panel planted in a field of wheat powered a probe that measures soil moisture at different depths.

Right now the probe told Scott’s iPad that he could hold off on watering the field. His sprinklers lay idle.

“People think that we waste our water out here,” Scott said, “and we just kind of grin because we work so hard to use that water.”

In addition to the soil moisture probes linked to his iPad, Scott consults satellites and radar data to track every shift in the weather and drop of rain that falls in his fields so he can minimize irrigation. He uses low-till techniques to preserve the soil and experiments with genetically engineered drought-resistant corn. He installed more efficient nozzles on his center-pivot sprinklers.

And he’s trying out a new device called a “dragon line,” which drags perforated hoses behind a center pivot to deposit water directly on the ground, reducing pooling and evaporation.

Scott’s version of high-tech farming would be unrecognizable to his great-grandfather, who homesteaded in nearby Stanton County around the turn of the century.

Still, despite all his efforts, Scott knows there will come a day – sooner rather than later if nothing is done – when irrigation is no longer viable in this part of Kansas.

The effects of the depleted aquifer already can be felt on Scott’s farm, where he’s had to reduce irrigation by 25 percent.

Some of his two dozen wells are pumping just 150 gallons per minute now, down from thousands of gallons per minute when they were first drilled. And as the water table drops, the energy costs of pumping from deeper underground have become higher than the cash rents Scott pays on the fields he leases.

“We’ve gone through periods where we re-drilled and tapped all but the very lowest water,” Scott said. “There are places we don’t pump the wells anymore.”

As an elected board member for the local Groundwater Management District, Scott hopes that he’ll be able to shape conservation policies that will enable his children to continue farming after him. He sees the situation in California, where the state has forced farmers to cut water use, as a cautionary tale. If farmers in Kansas don’t find ways to conserve enough water on their own, the state could enforce water rationing.

“I’ve got three boys, and a couple of them have already talked very seriously about coming back to the farm, and I’d like them to have the opportunity and ability that I’ve had to grow crops and livestock, even in a drought,” he said.

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue
Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

Scott’s long-term hopes rest in the construction of an $18 billion aqueduct that would import high flows off the Missouri River to water crops grown in western Kansas.

As conceived by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the concrete ditch would stretch 360 miles from east to west across Kansas with 16 lift stations and massive reservoirs on either end. The proposal was met with opposition – and not a little ridicule – by the legislature in Topeka, as state lawmakers struggled to close a $400 million budget hole.

“We’re not working on it at this point,” Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, said in an interview.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon dismissed the aqueduct as a “harebrained” scheme that would divert river water needed for barge traffic and municipal use.

But in western Kansas, it doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea.

“When they’re flooding in the Missouri River and cities are sandbagging, it sure seems to us like we have an answer to their problems,” Scott said. “Nobody wants to build a house and see it flooded; nobody wants to plant a field and watch it wither.”

Fervent support for the project speaks to the urgency felt by Scott, Peterson and other farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods and communities depend on irrigation. They’re hoping to convince the federal government to kick in funds for the aqueduct. And they’re looking into the possibility of building it through a public-private partnership, like a toll road. Farming cooperatives in California and Colorado have expressed interest in the project, they say, and want to explore extending it farther west.

A federal engineering bailout for western Kansas isn’t very likely, however.

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in an interview that such a costly project would be a nonstarter under Congress’ current budget caps.

“In all honestly, it’s a front-burner issue for folks in southwest Kansas, but to build that kind of aqueduct would be billions of dollars, and I just don’t think that’s feasible at this point,” Roberts said.

Barring the construction of an aqueduct, rural communities that depend on the Ogallala face a bleak future.

The state would have to cut its irrigated acres in half today to get anywhere close to sustainability, said Golden, the agricultural economist from Kansas State.

But it isn’t as simple as turning off the sprinklers.

“People survived out here on dryland farming. I can do it,” Peterson said, using the term “dryland” to refer to growing crops without irrigation. “Here’s the cost: My community is going to wither away.”

An irrigated field in southwest Kansas produces more than eight times more corn per acre on average than a field that isn’t irrigated, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Land values would drop. The loss of equity and tax base would mean fewer farmers and bigger farms, consolidated school districts, and impoverished towns with declining populations.

Like any economy dependent on mining a finite resource, this one is headed for a bust, and the farmers know it.

“We can’t wait another 30 years to get our policy right,” Scott said. “The drought in California is showing what living in denial can do.”

From Science Daily:

Keith Gido, professor in the Division of Biology; Josh Perkin, 2012 Kansas State University doctoral graduate; and several co-authors have published “Fragmentation and dewatering transform Great Plains stream fish communities” in the journal Ecological Monographs.

The article documents a reduction in water flow in Great Plains streams and rivers because of drought, damming and groundwater withdrawals. This is causing a decrease in aquatic diversity in Kansas from stream fragmentation — or stretches of disconnected streams.

“Fish are an indication of the health of the environment,” Gido said. “A while back there was a sewage leak in the Arkansas River and it was the dead fish that helped identify the problem. Children play and swim in that water, so it’s important that we have a good understanding of water quality.”

Several species of fish — including the peppered chub and the plains minnow — were found to be severely declining in the Great Plains during the ecologists’ field research, which compared historic records to 110 sampling sites in Kansas between 2011-2013. Both fish species swim downstream during droughts and return during normal water flow, but the construction of dams, or stream fragmentation, prevents fish from returning upstream.

“The Great Plains region is a harsh environment and drought has always been a problem. Historically, fish were able to recover from drought by moving,” Gido said. “They could swim downstream and when the drought was over, they could swim back. Now, there are dams on the rivers and the fish are not able to recover.”

Streams in the Great Plains region have more than 19,000 human-made barriers. Gido estimates that on average, stretches of streams in the Great Plains are about six miles long. In surveying Kansas’ streams and rivers, the researchers discovered numerous small dams that do not allow enough habitat for the fish to complete their reproductive cycles. Moreover, the fish are unable to migrate in search of suitable habitat.

“Groundwater extraction exasperates the drought, and the damming of the rivers inhibits the fish from being able to recover from those conditions,” Gido said. “This is unfortunate, but there are some things we can do to help.”

Gido suggested a renewed focus to conserve water, reduce dams and make fish passageways like the one on the Arkansas River under Lincoln Street in Wichita. During the planning for the reconstruction of the Lincoln Street Bridge and the dam over the river, the city worked with wildlife agencies to build a passage that would allow fish as well as canoes and kayaks to navigate through the structure.

Similar structures could be constructed on the Kansas River to help fish migrate.

“The plains minnow is still found in the Missouri River and could recolonize the Kansas River — where they used to be the most abundance species — if there was a fish passage through some of the dams.”

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here.