Governor pleads to conserve Ogallala

By Mike Corn

Hays Daily News

Conserving water and extending the life of the Ogallala Aquifer is a “moral responsibility,” Hoxie Feedyard manager Scott Foote told irrigators.

“If we do nothing, we know exactly where we’re going,” he said. “It’s our moral responsibility, and we owe it to our families. We need to do something.”

Foote’s message came in the final moments of the first of two meetings on the future of the Ogallala, gatherings organized by Governor Sam Brownback as part of his initiative on conserving and extending the life of the aquifer, the driving force behind the economy in the western third of the state.

The meeting in Scott City was the most direct push for conservation in the year since Brownback called a summit in Colby to talk about water use from the Ogallala Aquifer for irrigation.

It’s likely Foote’s words will carry weight.

He and other water users in western Sheridan County are asking to voluntarily cut water use by approximately 20 percent through a new program OK’d by the Kansas Legislature this year. The first of two hearings on that request will be Sept. 13 in Hoxie.

As well, Hoxie Feedyard is perhaps the biggest driving force of the Sheridan County economy, and Foote’s family now owns Lane County Feeders, located north of Dighton, and Pioneer Feedyard in Oakley, buying corn and feed from area farmers.

“We hope you do something too,” he said of conserving water.

Foote’s comments came after Brownback was asked if the state would force irrigators to conserve if they don’t take it upon themselves.

“I don’t have a plan to take it from you,” Gov. Sam Brownback said of water rights held by irrigators. “We don’t have the money to buy it.”

He did, however, offer state resources — in terms of computer modeling or economic analysis — so farmers can see what the future might hold if they conserve.

“We can provide the technical expertise,” Brownback said.

Kansas Geological Survey groundwater guru Brownie Wilson showed a model suggesting the life of wells could be extended by more than 20 years simply by reducing water use by 30 percent.

Marienthal irrigator Greg Graff — president of the Scott City-based Groundwater Management District No. 1 and a member of the Ogallala Aquifer Advisory Committee — said farmers can do nothing.

“We’ll get to the point where we’ll still have drinking water, but most of the irrigation will be gone,” Graff said. “The question is how quickly do you want to do that?”

Graff said the district he heads up is watching closely the conservation plan now under way in Sheridan County and is looking at similar scenarios in its district, either across the entire GMD or in particular areas.

Water, Brownback said, will be worth more in 20 years than it is now.

“That’s why we’re pleading with you, start the process,” he said of conserving water. “Take all the time you need. It’s a moral obligation. I’m not going to do it. It’s a local issue.”

Brownback said the meeting and the push for conservation has been prompted by past experience.

“The path we’re on ends poorly,” he said. “And we know it.”