In his book “The Great Plains,” the historian Walter Prescott Webb explained how the pioneers, who’d migrated from wet, hilly, forested places, adapted to the dry, flat, treeless realities of the plains.
Dry-land farming, which aimed to preserve every drop of moisture in the soil, was one such adaptation. It took trial and error and persistence through many droughts, but by the 1950s, my western Kansas family, like most of our neighbors, had that science down.
Using wind to pump Ogallala Aquifer water for households and livestock was another adaptation. But, as Webb also explained, a government topographer who surveyed the High Plains in 1899 concluded that irrigation, if it ever became possible, “would rapidly result in exhaustion of the stored supply.”
Yet when the technology to pump water in volumes necessary for irrigation came along, common knowledge of the aquifer’s finite nature didn’t stop my parents and most farmers who could afford the investment from going whole hog. A recent Kansas State University study informs us that the aquifer is down 30 percent from original levels and that if pumping continues at current rates, 70 percent of the water will be gone in 50 years.
In response to this crisis, Gov. Sam Brownback’s water task force is now traveling the state, taking ideas from citizens on a 50-year water plan. The governor’s own favored solution to aquifer depletion is “protein production,” i.e. lots and lots of CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations.
He theorizes that the corn to feed the animals can be imported from places where it rains more, thus reducing demand on the aquifer. There is only one problem with this logic: No feeding operation is going to ship grain long distances as long as local farmers can supply its needs, which they will certainly do until the water is gone.
The “agricultural renaissance” the governor proposes would foist another ruinous industry on the western plains, which have already been ravaged by plow-ups and where many streams have dried up as the result of industrial-scale irrigation. Concentrated animal feeding operations are a notorious threat to water quality.
They are also cruel to animals and depressing to live near — this at a time when more and more health-conscious meat eaters are demanding that source animals be grass fed and free range. In reality, the only governmental entity that has the power to save the Ogallala Aquifer is the one that is currently underwriting its demise.
Kansas should ask Congress to stop subsidizing notoriously thirsty crops such as irrigated corn and soybeans. Kansas should also ask the federal government to stop requiring that ethanol, whose main feedstock is corn, be added to the nation’s fuel each year.
Adapt or leave: That was the reality my pioneer ancestors faced, and it is the one that western Kansans face today. The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lists supplemental irrigation as one of the few adaptations available to offset the toll that higher temperatures and drought are already taking on dry-land crop yields.
To preserve the water that is left for this purpose, federal policy should focus on helping farmers switch back to grazing and dry-land farming.
The transition should begin now, while there is still enough water left in western Kansas to sustain a future of any kind.