Irrigation in western Kansas
Photo from Kansas Geological Survey

While probably the majority of the people in western Kansas would like to conserve our irrigation water supplies, can one man go it alone?

Almost 40 years ago, I was sitting in the office of Extension ag economist Don Pretzer in Waters Hall on the campus of Kansas State University talking about ways to conserve the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas. And he made a very good observation.

Let’s just say there is a section of ground and each quarter has an irrigation well on it. One farmer decides he’s going to do the right thing by shutting off his well so he can conserve the water. Pretzer said that all you’re going to get for doing that is a warm feeling in your heart that you did the right thing – and your neighbors will get all the water.

In a recent conversation with Bill Mai from Sharon Springs in Wallace County, he says that is exactly the way it works. Mai explained that back in 1948 his family drilled an irrigation well 221 feet to shale. Back then it was pumping 1,000 gallons per minute. But after 51 years of pumping, the well discharge from this observation well was down to between 300 and 350 gpm when measured in the fall. In the spring, the well discharge was about 450 gpm. The initial depth to water was 104 feet, but in 1996, it was 167 feet to water – which left 53 feet or 45 percent of the water.

At that point when he looked at what was happening, Mai made the decision to shut the well off along with two other wells on the same section and two other wells on land several miles away. He did that for two reasons.

“One was partly moral and one was partly economic,” he said.

From the moral point of view, Mai felt we have an obligation to future generations to leave them something.

“Here in western Kansas, water is very important to the viability and sustainability of our communities and families.”

But in addition, from an economic point of view, he felt they were as well off farming the land as dryland rather than irrigated. Part of that was because even though they shut the wells off, they got to keep the higher irrigated crop bases upon which government payments are based.

Also in an effort to conserve water, Mai says earlier they had converted from continuous irrigated production to a wheat-corn-fallow program where they provided supplemental irrigation water in two of three years and fallowed the ground in the third year to store up moisture from rain or snow melt.

So how did Mai’s conservation efforts work? Fortunately, this one well is an observation well, so every year for the past 16 years, detailed measurements have been taken recording such things as depth to water and how many feet of water are left. And while a surprise to many, even though he shut his wells off, the water table has continued to drop.

When measured in January of this year, it was now 195 feet to water, leaving only 25 feet of water, or 22 percent. Even though he stopped pumping, the water table still dropped about 25 feet in the past 16 years.

So if he’s not pumping, where did the water go? Mai’s theory is that active irrigation wells about a mile away to the north and west as well as others to the southeast explain the continuing drop in the water table. Mai says there is a very slow migration of groundwater from the northwest to the southeast. “So wells northwest of here are keeping water from reaching here while those to the southeast are pulling down the water table from that direction.”

So what does all this mean? Mai says that even though one man by himself can’t solve the problem, he can still make a contribution.

“Nonetheless, we could do a lot better job if everybody were involved rather than just single operators here and there,” he said. “But more than anything, we also need to be taking the longer view. We need to visualize what our farms and communities will look like in the next 50 or 100 years and beyond.

“We also need to realize that this water likely will be much more valuable in the future even for low-value agricultural purposes and most certainly for higher value industrial uses.”

However, one of the problems is a very powerful economic principle: the time value of money. A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. To maximize return, we farmers have got to use natural resources like our irrigation water as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

Still, as Mai says, if we use our irrigation water supplies today like there is no tomorrow, we have guaranteed ourselves that there will be no tomorrow.

Vance and Louise Ehmke grow certified seed wheat in Lane County, Kansas.

Vance and Louise Ehmke grow certified seed wheat in Lane County, Kansas.

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