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Western Kansas Farmers Face Dwindling Water Supply

Aug 19, 2013
Originally published on August 19, 2013 1:47 pm

A drought now in its third year in parts of western Kansas is taxing a resource that has been under pressure for decades: the High Plains Aquifer.

The aquifer is enormous, but it’s running low in places, forcing a move to dryland farming — that is, farming without the aid of irrigation.

And farmers aren’t the only ones affected.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Frank Morris of Harvest Public Media reports.


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There are dozens of wildfires burning right now across the Western U.S. as the historic drought continues. Idaho is ground zero at the moment. A fire there has burned more than 100,000 acres and destroyed more than 30 homes. Meanwhile, in Western Kansas, a prolonged drought is taxing a resource that has been under pressure for decades: the High Plains Aquifer.

The aquifer is running low, forcing a move to dryland farming. That's farming without irrigation. And farmers are not the only ones affected. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Harvest Public Media's Frank Morris reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The drought out in Western Kansas has been burning up crops, lawns and trees for three years now. But there are places where you wouldn't even know it's dry.


CHELSEA KOCHS: We're at the deep end of the Garden City Big Pool in Garden City, Kansas.

MORRIS: Chelsea Kochs(ph) shows off the two-and-a-half-million-gallon swimming pool dug by hand in the 1920s.

KOCHS: Back in its heyday, I think this was considered the largest swimming pool in the world.

MORRIS: It's about the size of a football field, filled from the High Plains aquifer.

KOCHS: It's kind of the gem of Garden City, I would say.

MORRIS: But it's not really a lot of water.

REX BUCHANAN: You mean that swimming pool?


BUCHANAN: Sure, it's a drop in a bucket. It's nothing.

MORRIS: Rex Buchanan, who directs the Kansas Geological Survey, says Western Kansas towns and industries use only a tiny percent of the water that comes of the aquifer, because out in Western Kansas, the signature sound of agriculture isn't a tractor's motor. It's one powering an irrigation pump.


MORRIS: There are about 39,000 irrigation wells in Kansas. Many like this one chugging away in Haskell County run day and night for months at a time. By season's end, they will have pumped enough to fill a pool the size of the one in Garden City more than 700 miles deep - a lot of water - and, according to Rex Buchanan, a real game-changer for an arid climate like the one in Western Kansas.

BUCHANAN: You've got packing plants because you've got cattle, because you've got corn, because you've got water. At the end of the chain, if you follow the link far enough, it's always water.

MORRIS: But water's getting harder to come by. Across much of the High Plains aquifer, water levels have been falling since irrigation took hold. The three-year drought has farmers pumping to and sometimes past the legal limit. In Southwest Kansas, water levels are plummeting fast, and some wells are running dry. Neighbors are suing neighbors over water rights. And the pain is not confined to the farm.

FRED JONES: Just for instance, we have one well with a 4.4-foot drop in static water level, another well with a 10.3-foot drop.

MORRIS: Fred Jones is city manager in Lakin, Kansas, population 2,200.

JONES: Another well with a 12-foot drop in static water level. Another well with...

MORRIS: And those are one-year drops. Another Lakin well has gone completely dry, and the rest have issues.

JONES: If you look out past that center pivot irrigation there, you'll see a little white cube, and that's well number seven. That's our most problematic well for uranium.

MORRIS: The rising concentrations of toxins in Lakin's water forced an unpopular construction project on the outskirts of town.

JONES: Hello?


JONES: Hey. We're heading right down to the plant.

HINETZ: Jack got it unlocked for you.

MORRIS: That's Mike Hinetz(ph) on the phone. He's in charge of Lakin's new water treatment facility.

HINETZ: We're at the city of Lakin nano-filtration water treatment plant.

MORRIS: Hinetz shows off banks of long, white filters connected to a deep injection well to pump toxins coming up from the aquifer here back into the Earth. Total cost: $6 million. One thousand water customers will pay off that debt. Their water bills have more than doubled. Family wells are also going dry.

RUBIN BARTELL: And everybody's - needs a new well.

MORRIS: Rubin Bartell(ph) is a second-generation well driller, standing in his shop in Meade, Kansas. He's 56 and has forearms that, except for the lack of tattoos, could pass for Popeye's.

BARTELL: I've been really busy. Probably the last three years has been the busiest we've ever been.

MORRIS: This all started about 70 years ago.

ANTHONY STEVENSON: This is it. This is the whole rig. Eight-cylinder, inline flathead Chryslers, two of them. He bought them Army surplus, I understand, in '47.

MORRIS: Anthony Stevenson(ph) here is talking about his granddad's old drill rig. It's set on the side of a field near Ulysses, Kansas, surrounded by dry tumbleweeds and big, rusty steel instruments.


STEVENSON: Oh, that the started irrigation around here. You could water your crops and make a crop instead of having it burn up. So, yeah, when he started drilling wells, it was - the water was easy to get.

MORRIS: But that era is slowly drawing to a close. It's not that the aquifer is totally drying up, but in places, it's no longer yielding enough water to run an irrigation system. Stevenson has switched many of his acres to dryland, un-irrigated farming. That means growing wheat, not corn, and planting a given field only every other year to let moisture accumulate. His dryland wheat all but failed this year. His un-irrigated corn looks even worse.

STEVENSON: Or some of it's already flashing. That brown corn over there? It doesn't matter if it rains 10 inches tomorrow. It's done.

MORRIS: Stevenson says that unless his grandkids can figure out how to make crops grow with a fraction of the water he uses, dryland farming is the future of Western Kansas. He just hopes that modern farming techniques can stave off a return to the Dust Bowl, when Western Kansas has to wean itself off irrigation from the High Plains aquifer. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Frank Morris, in Western Kansas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.