WATER SECURITY‘Time for a Reckoning.’ Kansas Farmers Brace for Water Cuts to Save Ogallala Aquifer.

By Kevin Hardy and Allison Kite

Published 14 June 2024

in this region of Kansas where water is everything, they’ll have to overcome entrenched attitudes and practices that led to decades of overpumping. After decades of local inaction, Kansas lawmakers are pushing for big changes in irrigation.

An inch or two of corn peeks out of the dirt, just enough to reveal long rows forming over the horizon.

Sprinkler engines roar as they force water from underground to pour life into dusty fields.

Thunder cracks. The wind whips up dirt as a trail of dark storms looms. The crashing hot and cold fronts would probably set off tornado sirens — if there were any in this remote part of the state.

It’s spring in southwest Kansas, a hub for the nation’s crop, dairy and beef industries.

As the familiar seasonal rhythm plays out, some farmers are bracing for major changes in how they use the long-depleting Ogallala Aquifer. The nation’s largest underground store of fresh water, the Ogallala transformed this arid region into an agricultural powerhouse.

After 50 years of studies, discussions and hand-wringing about the aquifer’s decline, the state is demanding that local groundwater managers finally enforce conservation. But in this region where water is everything, they’ll have to overcome entrenched attitudes and practices that led to decades of overpumping.

“It scares the hell out of me,” farmer Hugh Brownlee said at a recent public meeting in the district on the changes to come.

Last year, Kansas lawmakers passed legislation squarely targeting the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District, which spans a dozen counties. Unlike the two other Kansas districts that sit atop the crucial aquifer, this one has done little to enact formal conservation programs that could help prolong the life of the aquifer. The new law aims to force action.

The district has come under fire from legislators increasingly incensed by its substantial travel expenses, its lack of formal conservation policies and its alienation of farmers who are trying to save water. At a hearing in February on a bill meant to help farmers in one county leave the district, a Kansas House member floated the idea of doing away with the organization, also known as Groundwater Management District 3, altogether.

“Maybe that’s something that we need to consider — just dissolve GMD 3 so that these other boards that are doing good work are not affected,” said state Rep. Cyndi Howerton, a Republican from Wichita.

District leaders think the criticism is unfair. But even they acknowledge that painful change is brewing. Change that will force farmers to cut back.