Water issues central to future of state’s ag success

It?s been said water is the mother of the vine, the nurse and fountain of fertility and the refresher of the world. Nowhere is that more true than on farms across Kansas.

This state?s $7 billion agricultural industry is largely dependent on water and its gift of life for crops and livestock. Moisture in the form of soaking spring rains combined with winter snowstorms, blizzards and irrigation have long been a boon to farms in Kansas.

This winter has provided needed moisture across much of Kansas. And here we are, near the beginning of another spring and hoping Mother Nature will open her spigots from above.

So what is the current water status in our state?

Water conservation and appropriate regulatory actions remain a top priority for agriculture. Farmers and ranchers who belong to Farm Bureau in Kansas support the use of an Intensive Groundwater Use Control Area (IGUCA) when circumstances are appropriate.

There are examples in Kansas, particularly in aquifers with little or no recharge, such as the Ogallala aquifer, where strict administration of the Water Appropriations Act will be detrimental to the economy. ?First in time, first in right? is meaningless if senior rights are not being satisfied, says Kent Askren, Kansas Farm Bureau water resources specialist.

?The aquifer is not a smooth, level-bottomed container,? Askren says. ?Therefore, wells are not equally capable of accessing the resource, regardless of the seniority of the water right.?

In unique situations like this, where strict enforcement of priority does not accomplish the desired results of satisfying senior water rights and could potentially ruin the economy, the use of IGUCA may be a more attractive option. Still, the extraordinary provisions of an IGUCA should be used infrequently and with discretion, and still should respect the seniority of water rights.

Shifting to the Republican River settlement, the Kansas Legislature would be wise to plan ahead. That way it would be prepared for the possibility of a future water settlement.

Our legislature was wise in its earlier decision to have a plan in place in the event the state was awarded damages from Colorado resulting from the Arkansas River litigation settlement.

There is no argument that Nebraska has shorted Kansas a significant amount of water with overuse of the Republican River. The Kansas Department of Agriculture reports that from 2003 through 2006 Nebraska has exceeded its allocated amount by more than 143,000 acre-feet of water.

Kansas water rights holders have suffered as a result. Those farmers and landowners from the state line south to Milford Reservoir have been unable to satisfy or have been restricted from exercising their water rights because stream flows have been so low.

Upstream, lack of compliance in Nebraska has forced water-rights holders to suffer yield reductions or crop failures and has negatively impacted the regional economy in the lower Republican valley.

These sacrifices and losses must be considered in the dispensation of any compensation delivered to Kansas. More importantly, those in Kansas agriculture want their water back so they can grow crops and feed livestock again.

Another issue impacting agriculture, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, is being implemented because irrigation production in the High Plains region of Kansas is declining and will continue to do so. CREP has the potential to help slow that process and save Kansas water.

One key component of CREP is it is voluntary. CREP allows individual farmers and landowners to make the decision of whether they want to enroll and temporarily take acres out of production. Doing so will permanently retire water rights, which could help reduce the rate of decline and allow irrigation in the region to be extended.

While CREP remains a voluntary option?a tool some producers who have water rights may decide to use?time is running out. Funding runs out in June and this state?s legislature should reauthorize this water conservation program. Otherwise, there?s one less option available.

Kansas farmers, ranchers and landowners appreciate the efforts put forth to improve water laws and programs in our state. Water management is critical to our state?s economy, so it is important we get it right.

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.

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