Farmers and communities confront challenges of drying aquifer

"We can’t out-pump a drought," said farmer Anthony Stevenson. "We can’t out-pump Mother Nature. Our wells aren’t big enough." (Photo by Frank Morris, Harvest Public Media)
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August 12, 2013 - 6:30am

The High Plains Aquifer is enormous, reaching from Nebraska to the Texas panhandle. But it’s running low in places, forcing some farmers to drop irrigation for “dry land” farming. Some rural towns are also dealing with a diminishing water supply.

The drought, now in its third year in parts of western Kansas and eastern Colorado is taxing a resource that has been under pressure for decades: the High Plains Aquifer system.

The aquifer is enormous, but it’s running low in places, forcing a move to dryland farming – agricultural practices meant for arid areas without irrigation. Farmers, though, aren’t the only ones affected – the rural towns dotting the prairie landscape are thirsty too.

The drought has been burning up crops, lawns and trees for three years now – not that you would know it at the Garden City Big Pool, in Garden City, Kan.

"Back in its hay day, I think this was considered the largest swimming pool in the world," said pool fan Chelsea Koksal, showing off the 2.5 million gallon swimming pool, dug by hand in the 1920s.

It’s about the size of a football field and was filled from the High Plains Aquifer.

Photo by Frank Morris, Harvest Public Media

Dryland corn, in the foreground, struggles in many areas in western Kansas while an irrigated patch fares much better.

Photo by Frank Morris, Harvest Public Media

Western Kansas farmers like Jesse Garetson depend on underground water pumped from the High Plains Aquifer.

Photo by Frank Morris, Harvest Public Media

Mead is one of many parched towns in western Kansas.

"(It’s) kind of the gem of Garden City, I would say," Koksal said.

It’s a huge pool, but when we’re talking High Plains Aquifer, it’s not really a lot of water.

"It’s a drop in the bucket. It’s nothing," said Rex Buchanan, director of the Kansas Geological Survey.

Buchanan says western Kansas towns and industries use only a tiny fraction of the groundwater here, about 3 percent of what comes out of the aquifer. It’s the farms and fields that are really tapping the water supply. Out in western Kansas the signature sound of agriculture isn’t a tractor’s motor, it’s the one powering irrigation pumps.

There are about 39,000 irrigation wells in Kansas, and many run day and night for months at a time. By season’s end they will have pumped enough to fill a pool the size of the one in Garden City more than 700 miles deep.

That's lot of water, and says Buchanan, a real game changer for an arid climate like the one in western Kansas. And a real game changer for the towns and cities that depend on the aquifer’s water, for use and as an economic bedrock. Without water, the fields dry up, the factories could stop humming and towns could shutter.

"You have packing plants because you’ve got cattle, because you’ve got corn, because you’ve got water," Buchanan said. "At the end of the chain, if you follow the link far enough, it’s always water."

Across much of the High Plains Aquifer, water levels have been falling since irrigation took hold. The three year drought has farmers pumping to, and sometimes past, the legal limit. In southwest Kansas levels are falling fast, and some wells are running dry. Neighbors are suing neighbors over water rights and towns are suffering.

"Just for instance: we had one well with a 4.4 foot drop in static water level, another with a 10.3 foot drop," said Fred Jones, city manager of Lakin, Kan., population 2,200.

Those numbers are one year drops. Another Lakin well has gone completely dry, and the rest have issues.

"If you look out past that center pivot irrigation there, you’ll see a little white cube. That’s well No. 7. That’s our most problematic well for uranium," Jones said, driving the streets of Larkin.

The rising concentrations of toxins in Lakin’s water forced an unpopular construction project on the outskirts of town, the City of Lakin Nano-Filtration Water Treatment Plant.

The total cost of the plant was $6 million, which will be paid off by around 1,000 water customers, whose bills have more than doubled.

Family wells are also going dry.

"Everybody needs a new well," said Ruben Bartell, a second-generation well driller and shop owner in Mead, Kan.

Bartell is 56 and has forearms that, except for the lack of tattoos, could pass for Popeye’s.

"I’ve been really busy. Probably the last three years have been the busiest we’ve ever been," Bartell said. "Talking about the depletion of the Ogallala, and probably more severe now than it has been."

It’s not that the aquifer is totally drying up, but in places it’s no longer yielding enough water to run an irrigation system.

Anthony Stevenson, whose family has farmed in western Kansas for generations, has switched many of his acres to dryland un-irrigated farming. That has meant a meager harvest of wheat on some fields and an even worse looking corn on the land he’s trying to grow without irrigation.

“Some of it’s already flashing, that brown corn over there, it doesn’t matter if it rains 10 inches tomorrow,” Stevenson said. “It’s done.”

Unless his grandkids can figure out how to make crops grow with a fraction of the water he uses, dryland farming is the future of western Kansas, Stevenson said. But he and other western Kansans hope that modern farming techniques can stave off a return to the Dust Bowl when they have to wean themselves off of irrigation from the High Plains Aquifer.



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