We must change our relationship to water, or lose it forever
The dry bed of the Arkansas River beneath the Second Street Bridge at Dodge City. The barricades and barbed wire are to prevent access from city property, but the riverbed is public land. (Max McCoy)
Out past the 100th meridian things get dry damned quick.
The meridian traditionally marks the line where the west begins and agriculture is difficult without irrigation. You can find it easily on a map of Kansas. Just look for Dodge City, in the lower western third of the state. The meridian runs right through town. There’s a marker at the old railway depot, but the line is really a few blocks to the east. An Eagle Scout named Michael Snapp determined the location, with the help of GPS, and in 2007 planted a 600-pound limestone post to mark the spot. It’s on the south side of Highway 50, between avenues L and M.
The Arkansas River also runs through Dodge City. Or at least it used to. It’s been a dry bed now for decades. If you (carefully!) make your way past the wire and barricades at Wright Park you can see what has become of it. The river is nothing but hard-pack sand and tire tracks, from the four-wheelers that tear up and down the old channel. The Arkansas is one of three legally navigable rivers in the state (the other are the Kaw and the Missouri), but you’d have a hard time getting a boat down it now. It’s a legal absurdity that sums up our state’s complicated relationship to water.
I wrote about this in my book, “Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River,” published by the University Press of Kansas. By following the Arkansas River from its headwaters at the Continental Divide above Leadville, Colorado, all the way to the Oklahoma line below Arkansas City, I learned a few things.
The most important lessons came from experts like Rex Buchanan, the former director of the Kansas Geological Survey, who for years has braved January weather to drop steel tapes down sometimes remote wells to physically measure water levels. Because of volunteers like Rex, Kansas has some of the best statistics available, and they go back decades.
I won’t pretend to speak for Rex — he’s articulate and passionate about water, and is among the state’s foremost advocates for water conservation — but I can say that water levels in the High Plains Aquifer have been going steadily down since the 1950s. The explosion of pumping technology after World War II allowed more, and deeper, water to be pumped than ever before, which was a boon to agriculture. The feeling at mid-century was that the Ogallala Aquifer — a shallow aquifer that runs for hundreds of miles below the 100th meridian, from South Dakota down to the Texas panhandle — would provide an inexhaustible supply of water. Not only does the Ogallala irrigate crops, it also provides water for industry and tap water for municipalities like Colby, along Interstate 70 in northwestern Kansas.
The problem is, the aquifer isn’t a uniform depth. Imagine an egg carton, with some deep pockets and other shallow ones, and you have some idea of the Ogallala. Because the aquifer has to be recharged by rainwater — and because things west of Dodge City are, well, arid — some places are in danger of exhausting the water supply quicker than others. Dodge City and Colby are in two of the most critically depleted parts of the aquifer of all, marked by swaths of angry red on most groundwater maps. Colby is in Thomas County, where the Kansas Geological Survey predicts the water will be depleted in less than 25 years.
I had a friend who flew into Denver recently from back east who asked me if all the circles he saw from the window seat of his airliner were some kind of crop circles or navigation aids. No, I said, that’s pivot irrigation — and it’s killing western Kansas.
Drought has hit areas like Dodge City particularly hard in recent years, because the less rain fills, the more water has to be pumped out of the ground to keep the crops growing. Some local water management districts in the state are taking conservation seriously. There are five such districts across the state, governed by local boards. And some of them — particularly toward the Nebraska line — have a chance of achieving sustainability by reducing usage by 20 or 30%. But for places like Dodge City, where demand is high and rain is slow in coming, it would take hundreds of years for the aquifer to recharge, even if all irrigation stopped today. If we drain it, some scientists say, it might take 6,000 years for it to refill naturally.
Right now, the west is experiencing a severe water crisis, with the Colorado River basin experiencing a historic, extended drought. There’s talk of the New Water Wars, with municipalities vying with farms and industries for tap water. At the same time, the heat wave of late June and early July — driven by climate change — broke records in the Pacific Northwest, with Portland hitting a jaw-dropping 116 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Kansas, we’ve so far escaped the worst of the heat wave, and an unusually wet summer has prevented drought. But we are headed into what is traditionally our hottest period, from late July to early August. The record high temperature for the state was recorded July 24, 1936, at Alton, in north central Kansas, at 121 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
While researching my book about the Arkansas River, I was interested in not only the natural landscape, but also the history of how human beings have interacted with the river. What I found was disturbing. Because of irrigation and climate change, much of the river has simply dried up between Garden City and Great Bend. This has resulted in the disappearance of cottonwood trees along the riverbed, the desertification of some areas, the loss of ecosystem, and the destruction of one of the state’s most important natural features. The Arkansas is really two unconnected rivers now, the upper and the lower.
I grew up in southeast Kansas, on the edge of the Ozark Plateau. Like much of the eastern third of the state, it is a wet region, with plenty of rainfall and plenty of creeks and rivers. But out past the 100th meridian — the rainfall curtain — it’s a different and in many ways more fragile world.
One of the things I remember most about my meeting with Buchanan, that committed soul who actually goes out and measures water levels, was a map he showed me of the historic rivers and creeks in western Kansas. The waterways looked like veins in a leaf, spreading across the high plains. Then he showed me a recent map, and many of those waterways were simply gone, erased from the landscape.
That was a few years ago. The situation has just gotten worse since.
To save what is left of the water in western Kansas, we must change our relationship with water. The history of water rights in Kansas has been a troubled one. Since 1945, Kansas has been a “prior appropriation” state, like most western states, which means the right to use is based on “first in time, first in right.” It’s a property right, clear down to the aquifer. This doctrine places an emphasis on legacy water rights and prioritizes recognized “beneficial” uses, which are economic in nature.
Recognizing the hazard posed by water scarcity, Kansas since 1978 has enacted three novel legal strategies to cope with drought and dwindling resources. The first was the ability of the chief engineer — the state’s chief water administrator, at the Kansas Department of Agriculture — to designate some areas as Intensive Groundwater Use Control Areas. The second, in 1991, was to require conservation plans from some water rights applicants. The third, in 2012, gave communities within IGUCAs the authority to voluntarily create, through a public hearing process, a Local Enhanced Management Area with more restrictions. There are currently five LEMAs in the state, with Wichita County (in far western Kansas) being the newest.
But as Caleb Hall pointed out in a 2017 journal article, such efforts are insufficient to combat increased water depletion caused by climate change. Hall is an environmental attorney, a Kansas City native and a University of Kansas School of Law alum.
“IGUCAs allow established, yet still unsustainable, agricultural practices to continue,” Hall writes, “never questioning if water usage is truly beneficial if it is being applied to thirsty corn.”
If the western water rights model does not voluntarily change now, Hall argues, climate change will force it to do so in the future.
The question at the heart of the problem is what is truly beneficial.
Instead of viewing water as a property right to be exploited for personal profit, we must become guardians of that which remains. Twentieth century technology allowed us to use water at a rate far beyond what was sustainable. Climate change has brought the crisis to a head. Nothing is going to bring back the Arkansas River in western Kansas in our lifetimes, but if we start changing our laws now, we just might be able to save what’s left of the Ogallala Aquifer.
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