On November 12-13, the Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas will be held in Manhattan. This will be the third year the Kansas Water Office has hosted the gathering.

From what I understand, the latest developments in the Governor’s 50-Year Water Plan will be presented. The content of the plan was gathered from listening sessions and discussion meetings throughout the state. I’ve watched with interest the activities surrounding the governor’s 50-year water plan and made it a priority to sit in on some of these meetings.

What I suspect we’ll be hearing at the upcoming conference is that western Kansas is in big doo-doo. Irrigation pumping of the Ogallala Aquifer has mined this non-renewable resource while precious little focus has been placed on conservation. At least not until recent years. I imagine there will also be other regions of Kansas addressed, especially those areas that have chronic water issues––Wichita, Hays, and rural water districts, as well as the pressure that expanding population in eastern Kansas is placing on water resources.

For years, those of us who are concerned about the Ogallala Aquifer have been screaming for strategies that conserve this valuable resource. Now it’s coming to a head. 50 years of Ogallala water are being touted as available in the water discussions. I have serious doubts on the accuracy of that figure.

A few years back I, as part of the Ogallala Commons Project Board of Directors, participated in a conference in Muleshoe, Texas. Darryl Birkenfeld had gathered all the big-wigs from Texas Tech who specialized in the Ogallala Aquifer in Texas. They reported results from a thirteen year study of the aquifer. Researchers had taken baseline water measurements of irrigation wells across the high plains of Texas where the aquifer is located. When they repeated the measurements thirteen years later, over 50% of the available water had been used! And they are still drilling new wells!

Texas probably has much less than ten years of water left. I suspect Kansas isn’t that far behind. Yes, we have more water than Texas, but I’m still guessing it’s going fast.

The farmers and ranchers in attendance at the Muleshoe meeting openly stated they knew they were mining a non-renewable resource, that they plan to keep doing it until all the water is gone, and that they’ll then do something else. This use it until gone, then act philosophy is present here in Kansas, too.

Compounding the heavy irrigation use of the Ogallala Aquifer, Governor Brownback’s administration is very focused on future economic development in SW Kansas–the area of the state depleting the aquifer by far the quickest. Most economic development takes water. Especially when the most likely source of economic development for this region of the state will be CAFOs––an industry requiring significant water resources. Governor Brownback’s water and economic development strategies clearly have significant shortcomings.

As I watch these water meetings happening, my gut feeling is that this administration wants to continue a strong focus on rural economic development exactly in the areas where future large-scale water availability is doubtful. Which finally brings me to what I suspect the main reason these water meetings happened…

My suspicion is that primary purpose of this administration’s whole “50 year water plan” is to start building support for the proposed water aqueduct across Kansas. This aqueduct would draw Missouri River water out near White Cloud, Kansas and pump it all the way to SW Kansas–specifically Ground Water Management District #3. This water district is the main entity promoting the aqueduct. You can view a PowerPoint presentation on their website.

Now a Kansas Aqueduct Coalition has been formed with Chris Wilson, former Kansas Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary and General Counsel, shepherding the group. Here’s the website.

So it appears the aqueduct project is gaining some momentum….

This aqueduct really has to be one of the wackiest things I’ve ever heard. Pump water 350 miles and elevate it over 2,000 feet with 16 pumping stations?

To grow corn?

The end users are certainly not going to be able to pay for the enormous cost of this project. It should go without saying that the funding of this project would require significant taxpayer dollars–an interesting proposition considering this administration’s position on raising taxes.

If by some miracle the aqueduct was pulled off, would western Kansas have the political clout to keep the water in Kansas? With the economic power of the front range, will it be possible to resist efforts to pull it on farther westward to serve that water-strapped region?

The hurdles to this project are staggering. The politics of drawing off Missouri River water has to be overwhelming. Yeah, I know that they are proposing using flood stage water only. I still think there will be formidable downstream opposition.

And all of the energy it will take to move that water through those pumping stations will be staggering. The costly energy demand required to operate the aqueduct ensures that, even if the taxpayers help build the system, the users of the water will never be able to pay for the operations and maintenance of the aqueduct from end product sales. The aqueduct would obviously need on-going taxpayer funding.

That’s going to be pretty hard to justify to the rest of the state, especially on $3 corn. . .