Water is the cornerstone of SW Kansas economy

Jul 25, 2014

A NASA photo of Finney County, Kansas. The circles of land are irrigated by center pivot systems.
Credit nasa.gov

The ag world is gearing up to feed 9 billion people, but the Ogallala Aquifer sprawling under the surface of eight Midwestern states is going down the drain.  In fact, in some places, it’s gone reported Amy Bickel for Kansas Agland.

Southwest Kansas farmers placed about 633,000 acres of irrigated corn in 2013.  They can’t grow corn without irrigation, or it wouldn’t be the kind of irrigation production that farmers and communities are used to using says Bill Golden, an assistant professor of economics at Kansas State University.

Josh Roe is an economist with the Kansas Department of Agriculture.  He says the value irrigated corn produced in southwest Kansas alone was $582.77 million in 2013.  However, the total economic income generated by that corn was $842 million.

If those acres were producing dryland corn, which averages 24 bushels an acre compare to irrigated’s 200, the economic impact would be significant.  The risk with dryland is greater.  In the midst of a multi-year drought dryland acres have nearly been wiped out without the safety net of irrigation.

Golden says if nothing changes, the loss of irrigation means diminished income, fewer businesses, a decline in land values, and, in the end, fewer people.  He also says the crisis is entirely man-made.

Neal Gillespie is the Stevens County Economic Development Director.  He says he fears the county seat of 4,000 people, which has been growing, would see declines without the irrigation backbone. 

Stevens County has a dairy, a milk processing plan.  Abengoa plans to being operating a corn and cellulosic-based ethanol plant later this year, and because of irrigation, 65 percent of all beef is produced within a 150-miles radius.

Mark Rude is the executive director of Groundwater Management District No. 3 in southwest Kansas.  He says the answer is not shutting off every center pivot.

“The biggest challenge is that it is a hard decision to cut off your arm,” Rude says. “If you are going to cut for the purposes to make things sustainable, you might feel good about accomplishing that, but to the farms, the fields and communities of the area, they aren’t going to see it that way.”