I was born in Hawai’i, home of Mt. Waialeale, the wettest place in the United States. As a child, I moved to Colorado where most of the state’s water comes from the snow melt run-off. That water also feeds major rivers such as the Platte, Arkansas and Colorado Rivers.
Some of these rivers travel through Kansas, working their way to the Mississippi River and to the Gulf of Mexico. Most of Kansas and the Great Plains states don’t get their water from these rivers, but from the Ogallala Aquifer, which lies under portions of 174,000 square miles of crop and range land all the way from South Dakota to Texas.
While I was going to Fort Hays State University in the early 1990s, I became aware of the water situation in Hays and the Great Plains. There were commercials about going to the city to pick up low flow shower heads.
Since moving back to Hays, it seems that the water situation has not improved. The city of Hays offers rebates when people install high efficiency washers and toilets, yet at the current rate of consumption, by the end of the 21st Century the Ogallala will be dry unless something changes.
Many people believe the Ogallala is a huge underground lake, while the Ogallala is a geologic formation and water fills the spaces between sandstone, gravel, clay and other sediments that has fed natural springs and wells in Kansas for nearly 13,000 years. All of Kansas rivers are fed from the Ogallala, and now it is drying up from population growth and farming high water consuming crops like corn for the production of ethanol.
One study from the International Institute for Sustainable Development estimated that replacing gasoline with biofuels, like ethanol, doesn’t help cut down on ‘greenhouse gases’ like carbon dioxide. Production of ethanol changes focus from farming food to fuel production which requires huge amounts of water to irrigate and causes nitrogen pollution because of use of fertilizers to replenish the soil.
Texas looked at the idea of ‘recharging’ the Ogallala. One of the ideas was the desalination of brackish water. The problem is recharging the Ogallala would be a slow process and more water would be going out than being replaced. Conservation on all levels, industrial, municipal and individual, was decided to be the best option to saving the Ogallala’s water.
The winter outlook for helping with the recharging of the Ogallala isn’t promising with winter temperatures, precipitation, and snowfall all projected to be below normal. Is this the future, we as Kansans, get to look forward to? The facts are planting crops that are heavy water consumers, using land that a one time was unusable and irrigation have helped to threaten the aquifer and people’s way of life.
These facts do not inspire confidence, but the only way to change our world is to change our thinking and realize to save the Ogallala for future generations of citizens and farmers, something has to be done now.