Rate of Ogallala Depletion is ‘Elephant in the Room’
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Water. It’s essential to life, yet it is often not treated as the precious commodity that it is.
Kansas water issues were the topic when more than 500 people came together for the Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas Oct. 30-31in Manhattan. The conference was hosted by Kansas State University and the Kansas Water Office.
Growing populations in some areas, combined with climate change, fixed water supplies and a declining Ogallala Aquifer mean that there is an increasing need to determine the economic value of water, said Frank Ward, professor of agricultural economics at New Mexico State University.
Several presentations focused on the Ogallala Aquifer, the vast, shallow underground water table aquifer that lies underneath portions of eight states – Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. Many agricultural producers in western Kansas and other states use water from the Ogallala.
“For agriculture, we combine ‘crop production function’ developed by agricultural engineers and agronomists with crop budgets developed by agricultural economists to generate ‘crop revenue functions,’” said Bill Golden, agricultural economist with K-State Research and Extension.
“The first inches of applied groundwater are much more valuable than the last inches applied,” said Golden, noting that “The implication is, if we save the last inches today and use them in the future as first inches, we might have gains in value and groundwater conservation policy can yield significant future benefits to the producer and rural economies.”
Golden, who led a recent study on water use in southwest Kansas, said that over the period 1975-1999, the value of water increased about .4 percent a year. However, because of a combination of drought and high commodity prices, the value has jumped 9.7 percent per year since then.
The study also estimated average value of groundwater to producer net revenue ranged from $129.03 per acre foot to $182.17 per acre foot. The estimated average value of groundwater to the rural community, however, as measured by total industry output, ranged from $644.56 per acre foot to $920.88 per acre foot. The values varied depending on crop mix, soil type, precipitation, well capacity, and economic modeling scenarios.
“The implication is that groundwater is as important to the regional economy as it is to the producer,” Golden said.
Another study he cited estimated the value of water in irrigated agriculture ranged from $12.33 per acre foot to $2,466.96 per acre foot, with an average value of $345.37. The value of water for domestic use ranged from $9.87 per acre foot to $3,552.43, with an average value of $715.42. And the value of water in industrial use ranged from $12.33 per acre foot to $8,560.36, with an average of $1,060.79.
A study that looked at water use for various purposes suggested that, accounting for only direct water use, dairies are a relatively high-value user of water, generating more than $93,000 per acre foot.
Overall, Golden said, agriculture is the high volume, low value water user. He predicted that in 40 to 50 years, western Kansas farm land will generally be used for growing dryland wheat and grazing cattle.
“I’m not usually in favor of more regulation, but something more drastic needs to be done about the diminishing water supply in the Ogallala,” said Kansas farmer Jay Garetson, who attended the conference. He is a member of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture.
Garetson credited Gov. Sam Brownback for signing two bills into law this year designed to conserve the state’s water supply and extend the life of the Ogallala, but believes more action is needed.
“The bind we’re in in the short run is the value of the dollar is trumping our long-term vision,” said the Sublette, Kan. farmer, who grows irrigated corn, irrigated and dryland grain sorghum, irrigated and dryland cotton, dryland wheat and irrigated soybeans. “We’ve had this elephant in the room for 40 years. The combination of high grain prices and low natural gas prices are crushing the Ogallala Aquifer. The short-term economics are telling us to leave (future generations) with nothing.”
“This is one situation where voluntary conservation is akin to unilateral disarmament for farmers who irrigate,” Garetson said. “What we need is a common requirement where everyone contributes to the long-term reduction. The way it is now, whoever slows down first, loses.”
Because the Ogallala is out of sight, it’s also out of mind for many citizens, he said, adding that if the water was rapidly being depleted from a visible lake, action likely would have been taken long ago.
More information on the conference, including individual presentations, is available online.
Sidebar or box:
Recent steps taken to conserve water in Kansas and extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer included the signing into law of House Bill 2451, which eliminated the state’s “use it or lose it” water policy and gave landowners incentive to conserve water because they won’t feel that they must use their maximum amount of water when they don’t need to just so they don’t lose water rights.
Senate Bill 272 also was signed into law. It amends multi-year flex accounts to expand irrigators’ capabilities and options so they can manage their crop water without increasing long-term water use under their water right.
Source: Kansas Water Office