Trying to rein in water use: With their wells declining, Finney farmers look for answers with LEMA

Apr 18, 2017

Dwane Roth knows the worth of water. 

Peering 20 years into the future, the Finney County farmer can see the outcome clearly if nothing changes.

“The Discovery Channel will be out here doing a documentary on us,” he said, adding the synopsis would be “ ‘What the hell were you guys thinking?’ “

With his water levels declining, Roth wants to make sure there is water for the next generation, including his nephews who all recently returned to the farm.

“We are going to have to do something if we want to continue irrigating,” Roth said.

With some areas in northern Finney County declining by more than 70 feet since 2005, 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.

On Wednesday, the group will have a public meeting slated for 9 a.m. at Cornerstone Church, 2901 N. Eighth St. in Garden City, to discuss the proposed LEMA and potential conservation measures.

Roth said irrigators can’t wait any longer.

“This is the crisis deal,” he said. “We have the ability to cure this problem, and we have the science and the data behind it.

“It boils back to us,” he added. “It is our responsibility – no one else. We have the opportunity to respond.”

A finite resource

The declining water table has been on Roth’s mind since he returned from the Army to farm.

National Geographic featured a neighbor of Roth’s – farmer Rodger Funk – in the early 1990s, talking about the declining water table. Roth took Funk’s message to heart. Funk would eventually shut down most of his water wells, transitioning to dryland farming.

“I went over to talk to Rodger about it, and he turned the light on – that this is a finite source, not an infinity,” Roth said.

Roth has already tried several conservation measures over the years. Last year he was one of a handful across the state to implement a Water Technology Farm, which demonstrates various irrigation technologies to maintain production with reduced water usage.

A lecture at Kansas State University last fall made Roth realize “we can make a difference. We can do this.”

“It’s my responsibility, it is my neighbor’s responsibility, for the future generations,” he said. He began talking to state officials at the Governor’s Water Conference in November after listening to a presentation about the success of the state’s first LEMA in Sheridan County.

With strong data collected over the years from the Kansas Geological Survey, Roth and a small group of stakeholders with a similar mindset soon were formulating a plan.

“This LEMA is not for the present; it is for the future of the community,” he said. “It is after we are gone that we are going to see the results from it.”

Positive feedback

Mark Rude, executive director of Groundwater Management District No. 3, said the district has been trying to have these types of conversations for many years, but it is often difficult to do.

The actions by the local steering group are encouraging.

“It is the kind of thing we really want to see in groundwater management – an effort to build consensus on how to share the abundance but also share the deficits in water supply to conserve and extend the water that will be needed in the future,” he said. “It won’t fix the needs for the GMD for that area, but it certainly is a very positive initiative in the right direction and it is a 100 percent local initiative.”

Rude added that if there is a consensus in favor of the LEMA area, the board could approve the concept, sending it to the chief engineer.

Among the groups coming to the table is the Garden City Company, which for decades relied largely on ditch irrigation, along with its groundwater wells.

That has changed with the declines in the Ark River flow, said Troy Dumler, the company’s manager. Ditch irrigation these days is just a supplement to the groundwater wells the company has. Those wells are declining, too, with some of the LEMA area’s highest declines falling on the company’s land.

“We all have experienced declining water levels and declining well capacity,” Dumler said. “At this point, the question is: Can and do we want to do something about it?”

The difficulty, he said, is making a plan that fits everyone’s farming operations.

Dumler said the Garden City Company has a number of farmers who farm some of their ground. Roth is one of them.

“This small group of farmers is just trying to get the conversation started,” he said. “I think, from our point of view, you don’t want to say 10 years down the road, ‘I wish we would have discussed this 10 years ago.’ At the minimum, we are having discussions on what is workable for people.”

Otherwise, he said, it will take a lot more acres to survive on dryland farming than on an irrigated farm.

Some farmers have been skeptical, Roth said. But for some like farmer Doug Mai, perceptions changed as they learned more about how a LEMA works and the goals of the steering committee.

Mai is a third-generation farmer in Finney County. His grandfather first dug irrigation wells in the 1940s and 1950s – wells that at the time pumped 3,000 gallons per minute.

Today, those same wells are pumping about 700 gpm, he said. Some wells have dropped 70 to 80 feet in the past 15 years.

With the declines, Mai and his family have implemented conservation on their land already – from drip irrigation to more efficient sprinklers.

“I’m for conserving,” he said, adding he likes the idea that local stakeholders are setting the rules – not the state.

Mai said he’d like to see a LEMA for the entire district, “that way everyone has skin” – not just a group within a boundary. He would also like to see credit for past conservation.

He, too, is looking to the future, with a 15-year-old son wanting to come back to the farm. The LEMA could be a tool to help him return.

“I want to try to conserve and make it possible for the future generations, but not to hurt use right now – if it doesn’t cut us off at the knees.”