U.S. Water News Online
WICHITA, Kan. -- While Clyde and Glenda Schinnerer were
taking a shower or doing laundry, the water at times would just stop
flowing at their Scott County farm in western Kansas.
s Eventually, water would seep back into their well from the
Ogallala Aquifer and the water pump would start again -- at least for
For months, the Schinnerers made do with a well drying up because
they had lived on their farm since their marriage in 1955. By 1979,
they knew it would be far too expensive to try to get a new water
supply. Even if they could afford it, they would not know how long it
Reluctantly, they moved into town, to Scott City.
``We liked it on the farm, always loved to be on the farm,'' he
said. ``The water was the main thing -- about the only thing,
Like others in the Scott City area, the Schinnerers experienced
what some experts say is the shape of things to come.
``If you want to know the future, talk to the people in Scott
County. They are experiencing the future already,'' said Rex
Buchanan, associate director of the Kansas Geological Survey at the
University of Kansas.
During the past 20 years, 5 percent of the aquifer beneath much of
western Kansas has fallen to levels of less than 30 feet of saturated
thickness -- not enough water for large-scale irrigation, he said.
Another 4 percent will fall into that category within the next 25
years at current usage rates, Buchanan said. About 40 percent of the
aquifer will not last for more than 100 years at current usage.
Just exactly how long all that takes depends on factors in 10-20
years that nobody can predict: the price of corn, the climate,
natural gas costs.
``There is this sense -- particularly in eastern Kansas -- that
one day everybody is going to wake up and there isn't going to be any
water out there,'' Buchanan said.
What really happens is a gradual cut back of large-scale
irrigation, rather than some overnight change, he said.
People change their irrigation practices in response to water
levels. They scale down and adopt more conservation measures. They
use irrigation to supplement rain, rather than all the time. They
also change planting practices.
For instance, Schinnerer now leases out his acres. Once the land
grew thirsty corn under irrigation; now it's more drought-tolerant
wheat and grain sorghum -- all on dryland acres.
The shift will happen at different rates depending on location and
use. In some places, such as Wichita County, the aquifer already is
considered depleted. But in other parts of the state such as
southwest Kansas, there's enough water in the aquifer for decades.
At the front lines of the declining groundwater battle is Western
Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 1, which includes parts of
Scott, Lane, Wichita, Greeley and Wallace counties -- some of the
most depleted parts of the aquifer.
Farmers started flood irrigating the area in the early 1900s --
long before technological advances in the 1950s and 1960s led to
dramatic increases in large-scale pumping.
It's here the impacts of a declining aquifer are most keenly felt
and where some see a glimpse of the aquifer's future.
As GMD No. 1 manager, Keith Lebbin works to stop the aquifer's
decline without hurting the local economy. He said the aquifer's
average saturated thickness in the district is 46 feet.
``We have had areas completely dewatered that have gone back to
dryland, not a massive amount of acres, but some,'' he said. ``We are
relatively shallow in thickness as far as the aquifer is concerned.''
Of 650,000 acres authorized to irrigate in GMD No. 1, fewer than
300,000 acres are irrigated because so little water remains, Lebbin
``It has been going on like a cancer that spreads over time,'' he
Communities in west-central Kansas are scrambling to buy
additional water rights as they deal with not just problems of water
quantity, but increasingly of water quality. Nitrate levels are high.
``As the saturated thickness gets less, what is there is of poor
quality,'' Lebbin said. ``Whatever has been done on the surface is
showing up in the groundwater -- leaking underground tanks, chemicals
used on farmland.''
GMD No. 1 has tried to do its job by such things as requiring all
irrigation wells to be metered so nobody uses more water than they
One thing that would help slow the decline would be a federal
water buyout program that pays people not to irrigate, Lesbian said.
The Farm Service Agency has a small program to do that, but the
idea hasn't been widely accepted because of the low payments.
``There is a whole range of things you can do, but they have to be
legal and they have to take into account the economic impact and
political realities,'' Buchanan said. ``People have built a
livelihood around irrigation -- you can't say we are going to stop
Looking back, Schinnerer said the area would not be in the tough
position it is now with groundwater declines if farmers had the kind
of leadership and control then that is now in place with GMD No. 1.
``We wouldn't have wasted nearly as much water -- we overpumped
our wells,'' he said.
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