Water, ag economy discussed at conference


New goal to determine 2050 benchmark for water conservation.

New goal to determine 2050 benchmark for water conservation.



DODGE CITY — Since taking office, Gov. Sam Brownback has wanted to find ways to conserve water, while sustaining the agricultural-based economy in western Kansas.

During the quarterly meeting of the Governor's Council of Economic Advisors Tuesday in Dodge City, local farmers and staff from the Kansas Water Office heard about the economic impact of irrigated cropland and discussed ideas for how to conserve water while maintaining local control of irrigated land.

And by meeting's end, Brownback had given the council a new directive: to have a vision of where the state needs to be by 2050 in terms of water conservation.

"With the formation of the Ogallala Aquifer Advisory Committee (OAAC), and the legislation that came out in 2011, now we're just looking at what the governor's priorities will be going forward," Mary Soukup, communications director at the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said. "The KDA's division of water resources input from this group today, input from OAAC, and input from stakeholders from across the state, will help him move forward with what's next when it comes to the water agenda."

Brownback said Tuesday's meeting was a good chance for a different cross-section of people, who don't normally engage in water discussions, to provide input.

"We need a lot of heads in this thing because it's a big issue for us to wrestle with," Brownback said.

Chad Bontrager, assistant secretary of agriculture at the KSDA, shared the economic impact that irrigated cropland in western Kansas has on the state as a whole, saying that while it's difficult to come up with a real value for water, it's easy to demonstrate the impact of taking water away.

He used irrigated cropland, corn, cattle and beef as an economic model to demonstrate the impact that the western one-third of Kansas, the region that utilizes the Ogallala Aquifer, has on the state's economy.

"Over half of the irrigated cropland in the Ogallala region is used to grow corn. So that's the primary crop under irrigation," Bontrager said.

In 2012, he said, the region had 1.6 million acres of irrigated land, which produced 258 million bushels of corn.

"Two-hundred fifty-eight million bushels of corn, 68 percent of the corn produced in Kansas, is grown under irrigation in the Ogallala region," he said.

In 2012, the yield per acre for irrigated land in Kansas was 173 bushels per acre, Bontrager said, compared to 49.5 bushels per acre for non-irrigated land.

He said that according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the average price reported in July was $6.78 per bushel, translating into a loss of $831 per year, for each acre, if the ability to irrigate was taken away.

In terms of cattle, he said one irrigated acre in a county equals about 1.5 beef cows on feed and that an irrigated acre equals about two cows on feed.

"So when you value the corn, value the meat that you produce from corn, you've got an annual loss of $3,900 for every acre that you don't irrigate," Bontrager said.

He said the irrigated cropland in the Ogallala region was responsible for $1.75 billion in corn production and $384 billion in retail beef production in 2012.

"So you put all those numbers together, and what we know is that corn production results in 25,000 jobs and about $1.2 billion added to the Kansas economy every year," he said.

Beef production results in an additional 32,000 jobs and about $2 billion added to the economy.

"This leads to a total effect of about 56,000 people employed and $3.2 billion in value-added (to the economy)," he said. "And keep in mind, that's just talking about irrigation for corn, for cattle, for beef. There are a lot of other pieces to the economic puzzle there. I just picked out that one portion to talk about today."

Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, said that currently, the aquifer is not sustainable in light of the drought.

"We're taking out more than we can put in," Streeter said.

Streeter demonstrated that between 1996 and 2012, some areas of southwest Kansas that sit atop the Ogallala Aquifer, including Garden City, Cimarron, Sublette and Johnson City, have seen a 70-foot decline in water levels in the last 15 years.

Lane Letourneau, water appropriation program manager with the KSDA, discussed tools put in place to conserve and maintain the aquifer, including a multi-year flexible account.

"This started out as a drought tool, but now we're seeing it as a flexibility tool. It's a five-year term permit and that quantity can be used any way over the five years of that flex account. So if somebody needs more than they're authorized quantity, they can divert an excess of that base water rights' annual quantity in one year, as long as they borrow it from the next five years," Letourneau said. "And this is a planning and flexibility tool, not a conservation tool. I personally think we're going to see some savings from this."

Streeter then asked those present to help contribute to the discussion by separating into breakout sessions to come up with more ideas on ways to conserve water while continuing to enable farmers to maintain local control of irrigated land.

Brownback heard both concerns and ideas brought up from the two breakout sessions and determined that the best course of action is to develop a vision of where the state needs to be by 2050, and then work backward from that in order to determine what steps need to be taken in order to fulfill that vision.

In the next six to nine months, Brownback's Council of Economic Advisors along with the Kansas Water Office, plan to have the vision outlined and presented at one of the council's quarterly meetings.

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