Ag News -
State Ag News
Wednesday, 06 February 2013 08:02
Drought's devastation goes deep into state's underground reservoirs
By Amy Bickel - The Hutchinson News -
Curtis Tobias is as optimistic as any Kansas farmer is in these thirsty times.
But even Tobias admits times are bleak as the drought continues into 2013. The scene is visible across the state as pastures remain parched, ponds dry and the wheat crop deteriorating every day there is no rain.
Below ground, the situation isn't any better. Beneath Tobias' feet, the reservoir that sustains his crops, like corn, is shrinking considerably, as well.
The drought that has spanned Kansas for nearly three years is continuing to zap Kansas aquifers as irrigators rely heavily on the underground cache because little rain is coming from the sky.
Some have dropped water pumps deeper into wells or even drilled new wells as the depth to water increases across much of the state.
"We can't keep this up," Tobias said Tuesday, noting his own water wells have declined by 4 or 5 feet in the past two years.
Study shows statewide declines
The Kansas Geological Survey recently completed the measurement of 1,400 wells across western and central Kansas, again showing the effects of the drought on the aquifer system for a second year in a row. In fact, for some areas, it was the second worst levels of decline on record after 2011.
"If last year hadn't happened it would have been the worst year for some," said Brownie Wilson, with the KGS. "Every place was down in some fashion, but it wasn't as bad as" 2011.
"The whole state is in a pinch," he added.
Southwest Kansas' Ogallala Aquifer sees declines every year, although this year is among the worst in decades. The aquifer dropped an average 3.56 feet in 2012, following a 4.26-foot drop in 2011.
The hardest hit by the drought and an over appropriation of water rights, GMD 3 has also suffered the greatest average regional decline since 1996 at 32.5 feet. Wilson also noted the area had spots - largely around Liberal and Hugoton - that fell by 5 to 10 feet or more.
Meanwhile, Western Kansas Groundwater Management District 1 - which includes Wallace, Greeley, Wichita, Scott and Lane counties, also had its highest declines in 2012, 1.54 feet, and 2011, 2.05-foot. And, in Northwest Kansas, which was not as affected by the drought in 2011, saw the depth to water drop an average 1.39 feet in 2012, compared to decreases of about 0.5 feet in both 2011 and 2010.
Water levels also declined in the Equus Beds Aquifer, which supplies water to Wichita, Hutchinson and surrounding areas. The table dropped an average 1.63 feet in 2012 following a decline of more than 3 feet in 2011.
Prior to 2011, the district had not suffered an annual reduction of more than 1 foot and had shown gains in seven of the past 15 years.
In the Big Bend Groundwater Management District No. 5, where Tobias serves on the board, groundwater levels declined an average 1.83 feet in 2012 following a 2.95 feet decline in 2011.
"We're obviously concerned," said GMD 5 Manager Orrin Feril. "We want to curtail declines but at the same time, we want to keep in mind the local economy."
After all, irrigation sustains acres upon acres of corn that grows in these parts. The drought last year caused the Kansas Agriculture Department to issue about 2,300 drought emergency term permits for 2011 that allowed irrigators to pump 2012 water allotments to save their crop.
More than a third of the permits were issued to Feril's district.
Tools to help
Feril, along with Tobias, are hopeful new state tools will help sustain Kansas' aquifer system. That includes the state's multiyear flex account program. Feril said he has more than 1,500 irrigators signed up for the program.
The program, approved by the Kansas Legislature last year, allows irrigators to use more water during drought years, managing their water rights over a five-year period. Thus, in years of more abundant rainfall, they can rely less on the aquifer.
Current legislation, if approved, would allow an irrigator to roll over any unused portion of a water right into another five-year permit.
Also, the Big Bend district has its water banking program and its charter was recently revised. The charter is now waiting for the ag department's Division of Water Resources staff to finalize revisions.
The Central Kansas Water Bank, in essence, allows irrigators to roll over unused water into a safety deposit account for drier years. Meanwhile, irrigators can also lease their rights to another user in the same basin.
"I never see programs where we can over pump our water right for a year and not get into a whole lot of trouble," said Tobias, also a member of the Kansas Water Authority, adding that he took advantage of the flex account program on three of his wells. "It has been a blessing for farmers. It is another tool we can use."
He also remains optimistic that rain will come. His wheat is hanging on, but it needs moisture this spring.
His region can quickly recharge if the water turns on, he said.
"Maybe we'll get back to normal, and we won't have to irrigate as much. That would be a blessing," he said. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed."
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