Our Turn At This Earth: Full Speed Ahead

Feb 1, 2018

In the mid-1980s my father got a letter from the Kansas Water Office warning that, from then on, farmers who didn’t report their annual water use would be fined. This was long before our Groundwater Management District began requiring meters on irrigation wells, so we would have to extrapolate the amount of water we’d pumped that year from utility bills for the natural gas that powered our five well engines.

This was going to be complicated, to say the least. Complaining that he couldn’t get his “old noggin” to do the math, Dad assigned me the task. As with all of the farm-related jobs he gave me, I felt honored that he would entrust this one to me. But I was not prepared for the results of my calculations, and once they were in hand, I wished I’d never been asked to perform them. Despite having worked in the farm all summer—helping lay eight-inch diameter pipe across the tops of our fields, changing sets each morning and evening, and personally witnessing the water coursing down each furrow—the quantity of water we were using didn’t hit home until I pushed the sum button on my mother’s electric calculator. 1-3-9-,-0-0-0-, 0-0-0?  I checked my math again and again.

Filing our farm’s water reports fell to me every year after that, right up until we sold our farm in 2006. Some years we used as “little” as 139 million gallons, but in other years we used over two and half times that amount. We had a permit from the Kansas Water Office to pump 1,400 acre feet of water, or enough water to bury 1,400 acres a foot deep. A football field without end zones is about an acre. Imagine glass walls rising above that field a quarter mile into the sky, water poring over the brim.

When you take into consideration that ours was just one middle to large farm among 32,000 irrigated farms in the Ogallala Aquifer region, then it should be no great surprise that the water reserves under the High Plains are rapidly diminishing. Hydrologists estimate that the aquifer refills, under irrigated land in western Kansas, at the rate of 1.1 to 1.8 inches per year. Our water permit allowed us to pump 17.5 inches onto 960 irrigated acres. That means we had permission to take water out at about 10 times the rate of optimum recharge.

On the day I ran the numbers for our first water report, the pride I took in my heritage as a High Plains farmer began to morph into a sense of complicity. Ever since the technology had arrived on the scene for irrigation development in the region, it had been full speed ahead, and now I was one of the farmers with a foot on the pedal. The direction we seemed to be heading was not into greater and greater prosperity, as most irrigation farmers and the communities that depended on the revenue the water generated seemed to believe, but toward a brick wall.