A warning worth heeding

We can — and must — slow groundwater depletion

By The Mercury

One of the differences between warnings about climate change and warnings that our groundwater is being depleted is that there are fewer skeptics to warnings about aquifer depletion.

Unfortunately, that alone isn’t likely to reverse or even slow the depletion of the aquifer.

But there’s little doubt that the water level in the High Plains Aquifer, and the part of it that most concerns Kansans — the Ogallala Aquifer — is dropping at an alarming rate.

The Ogallala Aquifer is the main source of water for the western third of the state; counties above it account for approximately two-thirds of the state’s agricultural economic value, according to the governor’s office.

As an Associated Press story reports, although just 3 percent of the Ogallala Aquifer’s water had been used by 1960 — before farmers began irrigating on a massive scale, the depletion had reached 30 percent by 2010. What’s more, by 2060 — less than 50 years from now — another 39 percent of the water will be gone, leaving the aquifer with less than one-third of the water it once contained.

If the High Plains Aquifer goes dry, 500 to 1,300 years would be needed to replenish.

That information comes from a four-year study by Kansas State University researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, a scientific journal. Yet as troubling as usage and projections are, they’re not set in stone. As the study concluded, “Society has an opportunity now to make changes with tremendous implications for future sustainability and livability. The time to act will soon be past.”

The greatest depletion has been in west-central Kansas, but southwest and northwest Kansas also will be in dire straits within a generation if current usage trends continue.

“The main idea is that if we’re able to save water today, it will result in a substantial increase in the number of years that we will have irrigated agriculture in Kansas,” said David R. Steward, a KSU professor of civil engineering and co-author of the study. He also said researchers’ intent was to help people understand the potential impact on present and future corn and cattle production, not to push a specific policy.

Promising steps are being taken, including one in Sheridan County involving a mandatory water management program that limits pumping and carries penalties for violators. Another program is in the works in Sherman County.

Also, extending the life of the Ogallala Aquifer is among Gov. Sam Brownback’s priorities.

That’s appropriate. But it must also be a priority for all Kansans, those who consume products raised on land irrigated with water from the aquifer as well as those doing the irrigating.

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