A K-State expert examines the effectiveness of groundwater management districts in Kansas, created to help preserve a vital natural resource.
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Farmers know the importance of water. Water is a necessary component to raising the crops and livestock to feed the world, and it will continue to play a major role in production well into the future.
In western Kansas, the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground water resource that is vital to agricultural production, has many people talking about water management. Producers in western Kansas who use water from the aquifer for crop irrigation and livestock production are looking at all possibilities to reduce water use today and extend the economic life of the aquifer, while remaining economically viable, said Bill Golden, natural resource economist for K-State Research and Extension.
Local Enhanced Management Areas, or LEMAs, are public-driven and allow irrigators and other water users in Kansas’ groundwater management districts (GMDs) to establish their own groundwater conservation policies. LEMAs were made possible by a bill passed in the Kansas Legislature last year.
“I think (LEMAs) will be the future of groundwater management in Kansas,” Golden said. “It gives producers the flexibility to say, ‘We want water for our grandkids and our great-grandkids.’”
The LEMA process, Golden said, transfers authority from the GMD to local producers. Each LEMA has to be approved by the GMD and the chief engineer, but it provides flexibility to local producers by allowing them to decide the future of the aquifer under their property.
Differences in current water policies
Because they are public-driven, LEMAs are different than another water regulation program called Intensive Groundwater Use Control Areas (IGUCAs). The 1978 Kansas Groundwater Management District Act passed by the Kansas Legislature made IGUCAs possible. IGUCAs give power to the state’s chief engineer to implement provisions if groundwater levels are declining excessively in certain areas.
Golden said IGUCAs are a top-down process for groundwater management, while local agricultural producers can define LEMAs—what the rules are and how much water use they want to reduce—and can reverse a particular LEMA if it isn’t helping the water issue.
Golden said this is why he is watching the economics of the first LEMA in Kansas, the Sheridan-Thomas County LEMA, or Sheridan 6 LEMA, in the northwest part of the state.
“We are going to track to see what kind of crop-mix changes they make,” he said. “Do they change irrigation equipment? Do they change other cultural practices?”
A look at the past
A reduction in water can result in losses to a producer in the area, Golden said, but prior case studies have shown that farmers have been able to deal with less water very well, because they are innovative and are able to figure out ways not to lose revenue.
Prior to the implementation of LEMAs, Golden examined the economic impact of IGUCAs, particularly the Walnut Creek IGUCA in Barton, Rush and Ness counties. He said producers there lost 15 to 50 percent of their water, which translated to less irrigated acres in that west-central area of Kansas.
“In west-central Kansas, we have seen a quick shift to no-till,” Golden said. “We have surprisingly seen major changes in crop mix. Producers who quit irrigating wheat and grain sorghum, which are typically viewed as low-profit crops, focused more on their corn and alfalfa acreage.”
Golden said in the more than 20 years he has looked at the impact of IGUCAs, he has seen more farmers who have used flood irrigation converting to center-pivots and making other long-term decisions to help reduce water while generating profits.
In the short term, Golden said the Walnut Creek IGUCA caused some struggle among producers, which brought significant revenue losses on crops. The problem was that the implementation of the IGUCA was so rapid.
“It was today you have your water, and tomorrow we’re restricting your water,” Golden said. “We have learned from that. The results of the study went to the state, and that is one of the reasons I believe that the state now is going to be doing more phased-in water reduction.”
Application for the future
LEMAs are helping with the phase-in, Golden said, because instead of an annual allocation, LEMAs allow for a five-year allocation. Producers are allowed to use that water anytime during that five-year period, which gives them flexibility to decide what crop-mixes and other changes they might want to try with less water availability.
With less irrigated acres, producers might think about how this would affect crop insurance programs, he said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency has offered a limited-irrigation crop insurance policy for corn. The Kansas Farm Service Agency also provides accounting services for producers. That financial information will be helpful as the economic assessment of the Sheridan 6 LEMA moves forward.
More information about the Sheridan 6 LEMA is available on the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA) website. KDA also has information online about the IGUCAs in place statewide.