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Urban Water Institute

Water Considerations for Kansas’ Future Necessary: Drought, Ogallala Aquifer, and Reservoirs Discussed

Nov. 5, 2012

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Water usage and rights are becoming increasingly hot issues in today’s conservation-conscious society, only exacerbated by the prolonged drought in the Midwest. Gov. Sam Brownback reiterated the importance of water conservation at the Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas. 

“For generations, people in the state of Kansas have been focused on water, and rightfully so,” Brownback said at the conference held Oct. 30-31 at the Hilton Garden Inn and Conference Center. “They have done a lot of planning and a lot of work to get us to this point. Now we really have to take the next step in moving on forward.”

One of the steps to moving forward, as Brownback saw it, is the preservation of the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas. The Ogallala is a major part of the larger High Plains Aquifer, which lies underneath eight states and supplies 70 percent of the water used by Kansans daily. The Ogallala spans more than 30,000 square miles in western and central Kansas. As a key resource for agriculture, as well as industry and cities, the Ogallala could be depleted without conservation practices.

“We must conserve and extend the life of the Ogallala,” Brownback said. “And it’s up to us to figure out how we get that done while at the same time maintaining our economic activity.”

Brownback commended producers who have already banded together of their own accord to conserve their water resources and preserve them for upcoming generations. 

“If we extend the life of the aquifer, future generations will call us wise. If we don’t, they’ll consider us selfish,” he said. “It’s on us. It is a local decision, not one the state is going to make.”

Brownback also spoke about the silting in of federal reservoirs, which is decreasing storage capacity. With approximately two-thirds of the Kansas population relying to some extent on reservoir storage for water supply, new technology and management is needed to remove silt from these reservoirs to secure fresh, quality water for Kansans. “We can do these things, but they’re not without choices, without cost, without difficulties,” he said. “I’m convinced we can do it.”

All of these water usage issues come in the midst of a serious drought throughout much of the Midwest. Kansas has already been battling the lack of moisture for the past couple of years, and State Climatologist Mary Knapp with K-State Research and Extension said there is not a clear end in sight. 

“For the rest of the winter, the outlook is that the drought will persist,” she said. “We don’t get a significant amount of moisture in winter months on average anyway, and the outlook is actually for normal to below normal moisture for winter.”

Knapp said the outlooks for spring are currently mixed and it is uncertain whether signals will develop indicating a wet or even normal spring.

Despite the drought conditions and hardships, Bill Blomquist, professor and dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, said Kansas is taking positive steps toward water conservation. His research is centered on water problems and policies in the western U.S. 

Speaking directly after Brownback at the conference, Blomquist cited several common characteristics he has observed in his studies that are often helpful for successful conservation of water resources. 

He first discussed the importance of clearly defined boundaries for the physical resource, the community of resource users and other communities affected by the resource. Kansas water resources, like many other natural resources, have multiple types of users and multiple communities affected by it. “Defining boundaries often means creating multiple institutional arrangements around those resources and users,” Blomquist said. “And those boundaries often have to be constructed, not given.”

He echoed Brownback’s statements that resource management needed local leadership, and also emphasized the need for nested institutions. To properly manage the Ogallala and High Plains Aquifers, cooperation is needed at all institutional levels—from local to state to regional and to inter-state levels. “Trust is often built more readily at smaller scales, but small isn’t enough,” Blomquist said. “Large scale institutions have huge benefits in technical and other capabilities.” 

But large-scale institutions are not close enough to the ground for day-to-day governance, he added. Local entrepreneurial leadership that is eager to foster a culture of sharing information about patterns of use and varying interests of affected parties will contribute to successful resource management. 

Blomquist also emphasized the importance of incentive compatible arrangements that allow for marginal adjustments. Repealing the “use it or lose it” clause, in which a producer had to pump water or risk losing his water rights, was a big step in this direction. 

“It’s better over the long run if individuals can benefit themselves from restraining their behavior, rather than just doing so with some kind of uncompensated sacrifice for public good,” he said. “It’s helpful to build in a way people can benefit themselves from their restraint.”

While these characteristics have often been key to the successful management of water resources in other areas, Blomquist warned there is no ready-made formula. The most important quality to consider when developing institutions and creating rules of use is adaptability to changing resources and user needs. 

“Over the long run, what looks like an efficient outcome will change. What looks like an equitable outcome will change,” he said. “One of the most important criteria for examining the design and performance of your institutions is adaptability.”