Farmers eye LEMA proposal to curb aquifer depletion

May 8, 2017

Credit Kansas Geological Survey

There is an old saying “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”

It rings true in southwest Kansas, were a group of irrigators are fighting for the Ogallala Aquifer.

For years, irrigators and others have been sipping the region’s groundwater reservoir faster than it can recharge. Thinking of his nephews who are returning to the farm, Finney County farmer Dwane Roth is helping spearhead an effort to curtail pumping through a Local Enhanced Management Area – a program implemented in the past five years to help extend the life of the state’s water resources.

A steering committee of about a dozen farmers has met several times in the past few months, looking at an area north of the Arkansas River in Finney and Kearny counties – a roughly 200-square-mile parcel that stretches from Deerfield to Garden City.

Steering committee members are seeking input from the water right owners within the proposed LEMA boundaries on the plan, according to the Kansas Water Office. Water right owners in northern Kearny and Finney counties are encouraged to attend an informational meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Clarion Hotel in Garden City to learn more and share their input and ideas.

The Ogallala Aquifer has been declining for at least eight decades. Too many holes have been poked into the Ogallala. It’s been declining a little each year since the advent of irrigation to water crops like corn – a practice that gained momentum in the 1940s and 1950s. Gov. Brownback has said that if nothing changes, the aquifer could be more than 70 percent depleted in 50 years.

The LEMA area is one of Groundwater Management District No. 3’s highest areas of decline. In one location in northern Finney County, the groundwater has declined more than 70 feet since 2005.

At present, the committee is exploring several options for achieving a conservation goal and certain flexibilities that may be helpful in managing a water-use reduction.

By reviewing past water use and the impact on the aquifer, data shows that a reduction in use by 15 percent would significantly extend the life of the aquifer in this area. The steering committee has identified several ways to achieve this reduction, three of which are described briefly below.

• Flat 15 percent reduction of historical water use (2006-2015)

• Sliding-scale reduction that compares historical water use to the authorized quantity and then applies a conservation factor accordingly. For example, a water right is authorized for 100 acre-feet but the average historical usage is only 50 acre-feet, then the conservation factor would be 50 percent of the 15 percent)

• Reduction based on maximum recent reported use and the pumping capacity of a well

A key component of the proposed LEMA are the flexibilities that come along with the water use reduction, according to the Kansas Water Office.

Wells within a consolidated well unit (connected by pipe) or within a limited distance of 2 miles will be allowed to share the combined quantity of the individual LEMA allocated quantities as long as the annual authorized quantity of any individual well is not exceeded during any calendar year.

Wells within a distance greater than 2 miles will be allowed to share the combined quantity of the individual LEMA allocated quantities as long as the annual average historical use of any individual well is not exceeded during any calendar year.

Water-right owners will be provided a five-year allocation that may be flexibly used during the time period as long as the authorized quantity is not exceeded during any calendar year.

A LEMA term permit may provide the option to exceed the annual authorized quantity in any calendar year in certain circumstances provided the water use within the five-year time period does not exceed the LEMA allocation.

In addition, a portion of unused allocation may be rolled over after the five-year period if the LEMA time frame is extended.

The current meeting is to help educate farmers about what is being looked at and how it works.

From there, to be approved, the LEMA must have a formal public hearing, which would happen once the Groundwater Management District No. 3 recommends it to the Division of Water Resources chief engineer.

Steering committee members discussed a goal of having the LEMA in place by 2018 but realize that additional time may be needed to successfully develop a plan that meets the goals while remaining fair and equitable to the water right owners within the area. Because of that, many farmers are considering enrolling in a Water Conservation Area while the LEMA is being developed.

A WCA is completely voluntary and is an individual agreement between a water-right owner or group of water-right owners and the chief engineer. For this area, water right owners are considering voluntarily enrolling their water rights into a five-year WCA and committing to a 15 percent reduction off historical use. Similar to the proposed LEMA, these WCA participants would be afforded the flexibilities of a multi-year allocation and the ability to move their allocation among the wells enrolled. As an additional incentive, those in the program can rollover a portion of their WCA allocation and unused water should a LEMA be formed that covers their water rights.

Additional information about the proposal can be found at www.kfl2017.weebly.com.