Irrigation Reductions: A Tale of Two States

Water laws in Kansas and neighboring Nebraska offer very different approaches to water savings

By Jeff Caldwell

<< See the story from FarmLife: “A Sinking Feeling: Saving the Ogallala”

Nebraska’s designation of groundwater as having a “public purpose” was part of what helped Legislative Bill 962 (LB 962) become law in 2004. Since then, irrigation has been cut sharply in areas deemed “fully appropriated.”

The result? Though the state saw major irrigation expansion between 2002 and 2007, farmers made major cuts to the amount of water applied to those expanded systems. “On an average per-irrigated-acre basis, the rate of application in Nebraska in 2008 was less than 10 inches—in contrast to about 34 inches in California, 23 inches in Arkansas and 16 inches in Texas,” says retired University of Nebraska ag economist Bruce Johnson, who led research on the effects of that state’s water laws after LB 962 was signed into law .

Water from the Ogallala Aquifer used for Irrigation.

Water from the Ogallala Aquifer used for Irrigation.

Decades before, Kansas lawmakers created Groundwater Management Districts (GMD) to “draft regulations for water use within their respective districts,” according to Burke Griggs, affiliated scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

But, statutory authority rests in the hands of the state’s Department of Water Resources chief engineer. Griggs says that creates regulatory logjams and, often, no action is taken and there’s little movement to reduce water usage, at least statewide .

“If approved by the chief engineer, regulations become binding. The GMDs themselves have no independent legal authority.” Yet, Griggs adds, even with such authority, wholesale action through policy has yet to reach fruition. “The chief engineer has almost entirely avoided administering water rights according to priority over the non-renewable Ogallala, and Kansas water rights owners have almost entirely avoided requesting the usual tools in a water-short situation.”

So, while mandates may be tough to implement in Kansas, Griggs says, voluntary employment of tools like more intensive irrigation monitoring and precision application technology under way in parts of northwest Kansas can make a difference in water conservation.

Federal estimates show such technology can have a 10 to 15% difference in irrigation water volume with little or no crop yield drag , a goal that’s already been surpassed in one northwest Kansas GMD that “reduced water use over about 100 square miles of land (about 64,000 acres) by 20% over five years, and the irrigators continue to envision those reductions as becoming permanent.

“The Kansas experience shows that communities can come together and reduce over-pumping without harmful economic effects,” Griggs says.