By Tom Parker

Thinking Outside the Box, the theme for the annual Kansas Farmers Union convention held in early December, focused on alternative, if not visionary (and occasionally contrary, at least to the status quo) approaches to food production and distribution, livestock management and water conservation. Cole Cottin, program coordinator for the Kansas Rural Center, shared her recent findings in a study entitled Feeding Kansas, which called for more regional food hubs and a shift to crops that were more healthful and require less water; Missouri farmer and rancher Cody Holmes elaborated on his use of intensive rotational grazing with multi-species herds; and National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson presented his ideas of how farmers could feed an additional two billion people by 2050.

Most of the proposed solutions involved changes in attitudes and perceptions rather than massive financial or engineering undertakings. The latter was left to Mark Rude, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3 in Garden City, whose discussion of the proposed Kansas Aqueduct really stretched the boundaries of unconventional thinking, at least to many of the members present.

The aqueduct, a 360-mile-long canal spanning three-quarters of the state from the loess hills surrounding White Cloud in the northeast to a new reservoir in the high, dry plains between Scott City and Great Bend, was the antithesis of what the other speakers proposed. It was big, it was grand, it was enormously expensive, but the reasons Rude gave in favor of the project were indisputable.

“If we lose the Ogallala aquifer, the decimation of farms will be tremendous,” he said. “We’ve got to do something.”

Underlying an area spread across eight states, the Ogallala supplies water for drinking and irrigation to 82 percent of the 2.3 million people within the region. One of the world’s largest aquifers, its discharge rate has accelerated to the point where some studies predict it could go dry by 2028. Should that happen, Rude said, the results would be catastrophic.

“As we consume this water,” Rude said, “we lose land value, we lose the economy, we lose the community. We’re mining these aquifers, but how do we conserve that water, or augment that supply? That’s why we’re taking this dramatic step and looking at the options.”
The Kansas Aqueduct Coalition, the group advocating the canal, bases its findings on the Six-State High Plains Ogallala Aquifer Regional Resources Study, completed in 1982. A schematic from the study envisions a lock and dam intake structure on the Missouri River near White Cloud pumping water to a nearby 13,000-acre source reservoir with a maximum storage capacity of 228 billion gallons. Water would then flow 360 miles in a zigzag route through a concrete-lined canal 280 feet wide and 23 feet deep. Fifteen pump stations would be necessary to lift the water about 1,600 feet to a 25,000-acre terminal reservoir near Utica with a maximum capacity of 517 billion gallons.

Powering those pump stations would more than double the state’s consumption of electricity, he said, making the aqueduct the largest electrical system in Kansas.

“This is no small thing to think about,” he said. “As we talk about this, there are so many issues just to add to the list much less deal with. We’re trying to identify these challenges, and also focus on Kansas communities and farms.”

Removing that much water from the Missouri River is within the water laws of the state, Rude said. “If it’s in the middle of the river,” he said, “it’s Kansas water. That water is wide open for appropriation.”

Nevertheless, he added, the state will have to open discussions with neighboring and downriver states to cement a compact, and the sooner the better. “It’s critical that something happens along those lines really soon,” he said. “That may not be an option tomorrow.”

The estimated cost of the aqueduct would be $25 billion, Rude said.

Conservation practices, tillage improvement, agricultural efficiency and other measures are making an impact on water usage in the southwestern part of the state, he said, but they’re not enough. “We’re dropping a million acre feet per year,” he said. “Those will help, but when you’re that far out of whack, it takes more than that.”

During the past few years, all 105 counties in the state were stricken with drought, yet the Missouri River consistently flooded, he said. Tapping into that flow would have minimal impact on downriver consumers, yet it might be the solution for augmenting the aquifer. The logistics are daunting, the hurdles piling up like logjams, and the options declining about as fast as the Ogallala.

“We can think about innovation, but at some point innovation and practicality have to come together,” Rude said. Whether the aqueduct is as practical as it is innovative remains to be seen, but Rude and the other members of the Kansas Aqueduct Coalition know this: doing nothing is not an option.