College News

Ag Instructor Vic Martin: A Looming Water Crisis in Agriculture – Part I

Great Bend Tribune
Published September 4, 2022

The drought monitor report as of Tuesday, August 30, indicates increasing expansion of severe drought and it’s creeping now into Barton County.  Some rains after that date may help a bit in parts of Western Kansas.  Nothing more needs to be said.  Currently the outlook for establishing and maintaining the 2023 wheat crop is bleak for many parts of Kansas.  The six to ten-day outlook (September 6 to 10) indicates a 50 to 60% chance of above normal temperatures and normal to a 33 to 40% chance of above normal precipitation although that was the prediction for the last week.  The eight to fourteen-day outlook (September 8 to 14) indicates our area a 40 to 50% chance of above temperatures and 33 to 40% chance of above normal precipitation.  This past week, there are numerous stories concerning the impending water crisis in Kansas agriculture.  This week, let’s discuss what’s going on.  The crisis is already here in some areas. 

            The state of Kansas and much of the Great Plains region is experiencing a deepening water shortage.  This impacts residential, industrial, recreational, and agricultural users.  And the impact is felt across the state, not just Western Kansas.  This week, a little background is in order on how we got here.  Next week – What we can possibly do.

  • There are four sources of water in Kansas depending on where you live: precipitation from the sky; rivers flowing into Kansas such as the Republican and Arkansas Rivers; reservoirs such as Kanopolis and Tuttle Creek, and finally groundwater.  What an area relies on depends on where you are and whether or not a producer. 
  • These stocks are replenished by precipitation, either falling in Kansas or neighboring states.  Reservoirs can refill much more quickly than groundwater but experience more evaporative loss.  Groundwater doesn’t experience evaporative loss but it took thousands of years to accumulate, especially as you move from west to east you see a significant decrease in average yearly precipitation.
  • Where you live determines the largest consumptive user.  For many especially in rural counties in the west use is almost 100% agriculture.  As you move east, there is a trend for more residential and industrial use.  The majority of irrigation water is groundwater with some coming out of the Republican River for example.
  • We have allocated more groundwater from east to west as rainfall declines significantly heading towards Colorado.  From a crop production standpoint this makes sense.  From a recharge and groundwater sustainability issue, it makes absolutely no sense.
  • The state regulates groundwater permitting.  The problem is we as a state have significantly overcommitted this resource.  We are withdrawing more than is being added – depletion.  And there are compounding factors.
  • For much of Kansas our summers are becoming hotter and drier.  Less precipitation to recharge crops and less precipitation means greater demand for groundwater.  The flows from rivers coming from Nebraska and Colorado have decreased.  The state has filed several lawsuits over not receiving promised flows from the Arkansas River.  The state won but little has changed, especially with the long-term drought in the Rocky Mountains where the water originates.  And Kansas has problems providing adequate flow to Oklahoma.

Next week – What can we do?