Water, water everywhere but where it’s wanted

03/06/2014 10:55 PM

03/06/2014 10:55 PM

In 1982, the Army Corps of Engineers released a study of what, even then, seemed like a wacky idea — take billions of gallons of water from the Missouri River each year and pump it hundreds of miles to parched farms across central and western Kansas.

The project would start at White Cloud Lake, an imagined 13,000-acre reservoir to be built near the Missouri-Kansas-Nebraska border. From there, the corps suggested two paths for a series of canals, pipes and pumps that would snake Missouri River water into Kansas.

Eventually the water would be dumped into western reservoirs for use by High Plains farmers and ranchers.

It would be pricey — at least $4 billion in late 1970s dollars to build with an additional $500 million or so to operate each year. The corps, being the corps, didn’t exactly say where that money might come from.

The project was never built, of course. But it didn’t go away either.

Quietly, western Kansas interests and others recently revived discussion of the water transfer, putting aside a chunk of money this year to update the 1982 study. They even have a name: the Kansas Aqueduct Project.

The push is gaining momentum because High Plains farmers continue to suck the underground Ogallala Aquifer dry. By some estimates, only 10 percent of the water pulled from that critical water source is replenished by rain and snow each year, threatening irrigation — and the farm economy — from western Nebraska to the Texas Panhandle.

The Kansas Aqueduct, supporters believe, could put some of that water back.

As you can imagine, downstream Missouri River users are not very happy with a plan that diverts millions of acre-feet of water to users hundreds of miles away. Missouri officials, quite accustomed to the river as a reliable source of drinking water, have already barked.

So let’s ponder for a moment the implications of a lawsuit filed this week claiming the Missouri River holds

too much

water every spring.

Dried-up western Kansas farmers will see those headlines and grin. Why, White Cloud Lake won’t fill up with normal river water, they’ll say. Only that nasty floodwater.

If the suing farmers win their case — admittedly a big if — it may become much harder for Missouri to oppose river diversion plans that claim floodwater.

Water will become a dominant political issue of the 21st century. The outlines of the local fight over the resource were contained in a court case filed this week — and a dusty study on the shelf at the Army Corps of Engineers.

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