ULYSSES – A century ago, when Clay Scott’s great-grandfather homesteaded this area of semiarid western Kansas, he relied on the mercy of the sky.
It wasn’t easy. There were plenty of years when rain came sparingly. Yet, as thousands of farmers went out of business amid the drought and dust of the Great Depression, Scott’s ancestors weathered the storm.
Now, if they could travel the back roads of Grant County on this recent spring day, the view would be much different. Scott drives past the countless number of center-pivots sprinkling water on newly planted corn. In the 1950s, his grandfather sank his first irrigation well deep into the ground to an abundant reservoir of water, coaxing out enough to sustain his crops.
It’s the same view across the Kansas High Plains. Acres of cropland spread across the landscape for hundreds of miles. Largely, it’s sustained by center-pivot irrigation systems that spew out ice-cold water from far beneath the surface.
It looks as if the lush cropland could go on forever. But it can’t.
Farmers found a way around the limited rainfall – becoming reliant on the moisture beneath the ground. But, like Scott sees on his own farm, the Ogallala Aquifer is declining. This way of life won’t last forever. That’s worrisome for an economy that has centered itself around water.
Water allowed farmers to grown corn, which attracted cattle feedlots, then meatpacking plants, dairies and, most recently, ethanol, a grain-based fuel.
However, with limited rainfall, there is limited recharge. So, slowly, the region’s farmers have been sipping the aquifer away.
They were good, 2,000-gallon-a-minute wells when his grandfather first drilled them, Scott said. Today, they produce 150 to 900 gallons a minute. Scott redrilled some of these wells over the past 10 years, going down to the very bottom of the aquifer.
He can’t go any deeper, however. Once the water is gone, it’s gone.
“There are a lot of wells around here that are shut down,” he said. “On the ground we farm, we have shut down seven wells in the past few years.
It means caring for every drop of a precious resource.
“We know there is a limited amount of time and a limited amount of water, so it makes us really focus on our irrigation,” Scott said. “There are no end guns; we have our drops down as far as we can to try to maximize the amount of water we put in the soil. We are doing everything we can from an efficiency standpoint to use the least amount of water the wisest we can.
“But the writing is on the wall, too,” Scott added. “Without some sort of recharge, we only have a limited amount of water left.”
Economy down the drain
In a time when the world is trying to gear up to feed 9 billion people, the Ogallala Aquifer, which sprawls under the surface of eight Midwestern states, is declining. In some areas, it’s already exhausted.
And it’s worrisome for an economy that is centered around water.
In 2013, southwest Kansas farmers planted about 633,000 acres of corn under irrigation, and they couldn’t grow corn without it. Or, at least, said Bill Golden, an assistant professor of economics at Kansas State University, it wouldn’t be the type of irrigation production that farmers and communities have been accustomed to using.
According to Josh Roe, an economist with the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the value of irrigated corn production in southwest Kansas alone was $582.77 million in 2013. Total economic activity generated, however, was more than $842 million.
The economic impact of turning those acres to dryland corn, which could average just 24 bushels an acre compared to more than 200 for irrigation, according to Roe, is significant. Growing crops without irrigation is cheaper, but yields are far lower, thus less money filters into western Kansas pocketbooks. Moreover, irrigation has always been a safety net for dry spells. In fact, dryland acres, including wheat, have been nearly wiped out because of little rainfall amid a multi-year drought.
If nothing changes, the loss of the Ogallala as a means of irrigation would mean diminished income, the need for fewer inputs, fewer businesses, a decline in land values and, in the end, fewer people, Golden said.
And the crisis is entirely man-made, he said.
Already, U.S. census figures show that one in four U.S. counties is dying. Stevens County Economic Development Director Neal Gillespie fears the county seat of 4,000, which has seen growth in the past few decades with the increase of the agriculture-based economy, would see declines without an irrigation backbone.
A lot in his county depends on water, he added. The county has a dairy. It has a milk processing plant. Abengoa plans to begin operating a corn and cellulosic-based ethanol plant later this year. Today, thanks to irrigation, 65 percent of all beef is produced within a 150-mile radius. And with the added jobs and growth, there is talk of a hotel being built, a new supermarket, as well as new homes.
The loss of the Ogallala “would be disastrous,” Gillespie said. “We would lose a significant part of the population. You can even look at the implement dealers: Without irrigation their businesses would be greatly, greatly affected.”
But the answer isn’t shutting off every center pivot, as some have suggested, said Mark Rude, executive director of southwest Kansas’ Groundwater Management District No. 3. That would be devastating.
“The biggest challenge is that it is a hard decision to cut off your arm,” Rude said. “If you are going to cut for the purposes to make things sustainable, you might feel good about accomplishing that, but to the farms, the fields and communities of the area, they aren’t going to see it that way.”
Golden said the best idea is to keep the land in irrigation as long as possible but to reduce water use and “get it to a more sustainable level.”
Why should the rest of us care? Local economic productivity and the state’s tax base are reasons, Golden said.
“Right now the water in western Kansas is the driving force,” he said, but added, “That doesn’t mean we are not developing new driving forces.”
As technology changed, so did the landscape.
Decades ago, before they realized how extensively they were mining the resource, farmers found profit in corn, said Rude.
“Corn jumped out there to meet the innovation,” he said. “You put the ability to irrigate and plenty of groundwater with cheap natural gas from the Hugoton gas field ... and the economics of irrigating and insuring your crop every year – why wouldn’t you develop it?”
But stakeholders, including farmers, domestic users and others who reside here, don’t want to see the situation get to a point where their grandchildren or great-grandchildren might not be able to come back to the farm.
Scott, age 42, has three sons in school.
“That is one of my main reasons why I want to make this water more sustainable,” Scott said. “Not trying to pump to the last drop and really trying to watch what we do. Our farming practices and methods are changing along with the technologies being developed for the crop industry. We are growing more crops with less water.”
The future of the Ogallala and the economies that sprang from it depends on conservation and careful planning to slow the rate of depletion, said Scott. Farmers always have been conservation-minded, especially since they realized the aquifer is a finite resource.
More than 90 percent of irrigated farms have center-pivot systems – one of the most efficient ways to irrigate, according to Kansas State. A few are trying subsurface drip irrigation, a more expensive buried watering system that puts water right on the crop’s roots – which dissipates the least amount of water to runoff and evaporation.
And even Scott sees potential and promise on the semiarid landscape. Down the road at Big Bow’s Skyland Grain, he points out a five-year-old steel bin. It was built for the growing corn industry. At 1.1 million bushels, it is one of the largest in the state.
At present, there is still an economic investment happening in western Kansas. Yields remain steady as farmers use the water source more efficiently, Scott said.
But the area continues to change.
“In this area right here, a lot of these wells were drilled in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s,” he said. “We’ve been pumping a good 60 to 70 years on most of them. I’m guessing we got another 15 to 20 years left on some of them, longer on a couple of them. But just as many will be shutting down in the next year or two.”
And what does that mean for 20 years down the road – or 50?
“There will still be irrigation – to some degree,” Scott said. “We will still have our feed yards and dairies and the hogs, too. We will still see all that because we do have good soils to grow dryland crops.
“The biggest concern from a business standpoint is to know how to plan for the future if we don’t know how much water we are going to have. It is difficult to invest and buy land or facilities if you don’t have assurances how long your water is going to last.”