Who owns the water, who speaks for future generations’ right to water and what comes after the Ogallala aquifer is gone? William Ashworth raises these questions in his book, Ogallala Blue, the High Plains Public Radio community read, as he ponders what a “post-Ogallala economy” will look like.
We likely won’t recognize the day when the High Plains states enter a “post-Ogallala economy,” as adjustments happen continually. Some changes are triggered when individual wells fail, producers age and get out of farming, or low commodity prices force hard decisions. Other changes are being made by people with vision and opportunities to adjust their businesses to a long-term reality of less available water.
Animal agriculture is a vital part of the High Plains economy. Cattle feed yards dot the landscape from the panhandle of Texas to western Kansas. The climate is good and the location offers feed nearby. The economic return on an acre-foot of water used to raise, feed and manage beef cattle, dairy cows, and hogs is higher than an acre-foot of water to irrigate crops.
Dairies are growing larger. Those with 1,000 cows or more now supply 80 percent of milk produced in Kansas. A new milk processing plant in Garden City will process up to 4 million gallons daily. The milk will be powdered which lowers the transportation costs, and the water reused locally.
Feed yards and dairies need nearby alfalfa and other high moisture feed. Seeing the water scarcity trends, some managers are in discussions with neighboring farmers to extend the life of the aquifer, making commitments to purchase crops raised with less irrigation.
Colorado’s growing municipal water needs provide irrigators an opportunity to lease their water. In the past, municipalities purchased irrigation water rights and the acres would convert to dryland. These days, farmers see benefit in leasing the water through a rotating fallow plan or other program. Water is another commodity and a rotating lease allows the region to stay in irrigated crop production.
Ogallala Blue brings the region’s story full circle from pre-settlement open range to questioning if the region will return to an open range “buffalo commons” after the aquifer is gone. The High Plains is not destined to be a story of resource extraction boom and bust, although there is that risk. Everyone who lives on or near the Ogallala aquifer has a stake in the future of the water. Many people are actively shaping that future with innovation and adjustments.
This is Susan Stover with the Kansas Geological Survey for the High Plains Public Radio Readers Book Club. We’re reading William Ashworth’s Ogallala Blue as part of the 2017 spring read on Water and Replenishment.