More than 200 people from agriculture and other industries came together April 9-10 to discuss the challenges and opportunities for preserving groundwater in the Ogallala Aquifer region, a large resource that touches parts of eight states from South Dakota to Texas.
The Ogallala Aquifer Summit marked a key accomplishment in the 50-year water vision for Kansas, a plan set forth in 2013 by then Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
“The Ogallala was one of the two marquee parts of the governor’s 50-Year Water Vision, along with the reservoirs in the eastern part of the state,” said Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, which organized the summit along with Kansas State University and Colorado State University.
“This conference is very important in helping us achieve our goals under the 50-year water plan that the governor set us on three years ago.”
Dan Devlin, the director of the Kansas Water Research Institute at Kansas State University, noted that the meeting was also in response to citizen’s requests.
“It was really interesting back when Gov. Brownback was doing the meetings for the 50-Year Water Vision for Kansas, we heard at meeting after meeting from citizens that they wanted to talk to the other Ogallala states,” Devlin said. “They said, ‘we want to know what they’re doing. We want to know what we can learn from them and we can also share things.’”
The Ogallala Aquifer underlies 175,000 square miles, or about 112 million acres in parts of eight states. For nearly 80 years, farmers and communities have been using the aquifer for agriculture and public water supplies. The Ogallala supports about 30 percent of all U.S. crop and livestock production, accounting for an estimated $35 billion in agricultural products annually.
But the resource is dwindling…quickly. Southern parts of the aquifer – including many areas of Texas and New Mexico – are nearly dry and in western Kansas, an extremely productive agricultural region, wells are slowing down as the amount of water available to farmers is becoming increasingly scarce.
“When we are dealing with issues like the Ogallala Aquifer, addressing them from one state’s perspective is just not the best way to get something done,” said Jackie McClaskey, secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, who participated in the two-day meeting.
“By pulling together all of the states impacted by the Ogallala it allows us to bring lots of great ideas and lots of minds and lots of folks together to really say how can we work together to address concerns in the Ogallala, whether that be decline or economic conditions surrounding the Ogallala…all the different types of issues that not only Kansans are concerned about, but all of the folks that live on the Ogallala.”
Summit participants heard presentations on science and research, technology, producer practices and water policy, and shared their views on each during small group sessions. Their opinions were compiled and will be part of a report due out later this year.
“For me, the importance of this meeting is just kind of listening to some of the concerns in the other states,” said Harold Grall, a farmer near Dumas, Texas. “We’re all pumping out of the same aquifer. Each of the states has its own set of rules and regulations on how they conserve water and I like hearing those different ideas.”
He added: “At times, it just seems because we’re depleting a finite source, that our time is limited, but talking to the people around here helps us to be hopeful that maybe we’ve got a longer time than we think.”
A common theme at the meeting was that farmers want to do what’s right and sustain the resource for generations to come. It wasn’t a message lost on 16-year-old Grace Roth, an officer in FFA and a Kansas Youth Water Advocate.
“It encourages me and also makes me feel kind of relieved because these people have a genuine care for the future and these people want to do something for our generation,” Roth said. “They want to take action today so that we can ensure our future; we can ensure the future not only of agriculture but also the future of our world.”
Roth, who gave an impassioned 10-minute talk during the meeting, said every person should be interested about issues that help to preserve and protect water.
“Just imagine if one day you turn on your sink and nothing came out,” she said. “How would you continue on with your life? It’s a very scary thought of not being able to prosper in the future.”
Much of the university research currently being conducted in the Ogallala Aquifer region is a result of a Coordinated Agriculture Project (CAP) grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. CAP grants are designed to involve researchers from many universities and organizations, and to communicate information to citizens.
“We want producers to be the voice that is spreading the message,” said the Kansas Water Office’s Streeter. “It’s one thing for ag departments, universities, water office folks to get up and tell these success stories, but it’s much better for the producers themselves to do it, and that voice does get heard by other producers.”
McClaskey added: “What I think is unique about (the Ogallala Summit) is that we have universities engaged, we have government agencies engaged, but most important we have farmers and ranchers engaged. And those are the folks that are going to hold the rest of us accountable to keep moving forward and make sure that progress happens.”