Saving Water for Future Generations

When most people think of water and energy in agriculture, irrigation is one of the first things that comes to mind. Several of our Water + Energy Progress models of innovation focus on efficient irrigation, including sub-surface drip irrigation and irrigation scheduling, but the efforts of the Sheridan 6 LEMA are a model of collaboration, cooperation, and conservation.

A LEMA, or Locally Enhanced Management Area, is a locally-designed and initiated water management strategy designed to meet local goals and needs for water conservation. The Sheridan 6 LEMA is proposed by the Groundwater Management District (GMD) 4 in Northwest KS. The Sheridan 6 LEMA covers 99 square miles in Sheridan and Thomas Counties with just under 25,000 acres of irrigated land. There are approximately 195 permitted wells owned by 110 landowners with an average of 31,000 acre-feet pumped a year.

The goal of the LEMA is to reduce water use by approximately 20 percent (roughly 28,000 acre-feet) over the next five years in order to slow the decline rate and extend the local groundwater supplies. Producers can meet this goal in whatever way works best – they can use all of the allotment in the first year and move to dryland farming or they can spread the usage over 5 years. Water + Energy Progress will feature interviews with two producers from within the LEMA and Wayne Bossert, manager of Groundwater Management District 4, who relate the various ways that producers are responding to this water conservation strategy. 


Description

In 2012, the Kansas Legislature adopted Senate Bill 310 which gives groundwater management districts (GMDs) the authority to initiate a public hearing process to consider a specific conservation plan to meet local goals.

The Groundwater Management District 4 was the first to begin this process and the only LEMA approved as of November 2013. The Sheridan 6 LEMA covers 99 square miles in western Sheridan and eastern Thomas Counties with just under 25,000 acres of irrigated land. There are approximately 195 permitted wells owned by 110 landowners with an average of 31,000 acre-feet pumped per year.

Ag Facts in Sheridan and Thomas County

The USDA Census for Agriculture  provides facts and figures about American agriculture down to the county level. Conducted every five years, the census offers a detailed picture of U.S. Farms and ranches. The Sheridan 6 LEMA covers parts of both Thomas and Sheridan counties in Western Kansas. A summary of the information is included in the table below.

For more information, see full report for Thomas County, or Sheridan County.

While statistics on the agricultural practices of the area provide general information, the individual producers are different in their approaches and attitudes. Roch Meier and Mitchell Baalman have both been actively involved in the LEMA process and shared their thoughts for this case study.

Meier and Baalman have deep roots in this region. Both are fourth generation farmers who hope to see their children and grandchildren farming for years to come. While the Sheridan 6 LEMA is a collaborative effort of many producers – and no two farms are the same – Roch and Mitchell shared their thoughts on the impact the LEMA will have on the community.

Roch Meier still lives in the same house where he was born. A grandfather of two – and hopefully more to come – Roch has his eyes on the future. He hopes to extend the life of the aquifer so the resource is there for his children and grandchildren, "I could pump the wells like I’ve been pumping for another 15 years and wouldn’t care because we’d be finished…but I want it to go on and on and on. You have to adapt. Saving this water is about the most important thing in Sheridan County.”

A young father and active community member, Mitchell Baalman explains, "I think we’ve been a very successful, progressive farm. We’ll see what’s working and adapt. That’s life. That’s Kansas…we adapt. That’s what we love about it.”

Both agree that Sheridan County is a good place to live.

Water

Many farmers in western Kansas rely on irrigation. Average rainfall is about 20 inches in both Sheridan and Thomas County. The ability to tap into the Ogallala aquifer dramatically changed the agricultural possibilities in Western Kansas. Irrigation in western Kansas started with flood irrigation but is now mostly center-pivot sprinklers and some sub-surface drip irrigation. In 2011, GMD 4 had 381,854 irrigated acres which amounts to about 1.12 acre-feet per acre. 

While the ability to tap into this vast underground water source has been a boon for many years, the future is less promising. Recent studies have estimated an average recharge rate for the entire High Plains region of approximately 0.5 of an inch per year. At that rate, it would take anywhere from 500-1,300 years to recharge the aquifer in western Kansas.

According to a recent study by Kansas State University, the Ogalala aquifer will be 70 percent depleted by 2060 unless conservation measures are adopted. The authors explain,
Water use reductions of 20% today would cut agricultural production to the levels of 15-20 years ago, the time of peak agricultural production would extend to the 2070s, and production beyond 2070 would significantly exceed that projected without reduced pumping. Scenarios evaluate incremental reductions of current pumping by 20-80%, the latter rate approaching natural recharge. Society has an opportunity now to make changes with tremendous implications for future sustainability and livability.

None of this has been lost on the farmers. Mitchell explains,

When we had the 'just pump it' attitude, we could raise a lot of 250 corn. We had more water, we farmed differently. At some point, I realized, if we don’t do something…our wells…Whether it’s dry out or wet out there, we just had to ask the question, 'what are we going to do?'

As Wayne Bossert explains, "you know the way this was structured and set up, the LEMA came exclusively from the bottom up. It really allowed them to have that discussion. They came to their own conclusions and we just captured it.

After many discussions, the producers in the Sheridan 6 LEMA determined to adopt a 20% reduction in pumping over five years. They are free to choose how – and when – they intend to conserve the water. Some plan to use the entire allotment and then move to dryland practices, others hope to spread it out over the full five years. Wayne commented,

I think the whole bottom line is that this is going to convert everybody from kind of shooting for high maximum yields to really thinking and planning for optimum crop production, looking at the bottom line and not the high yield and high inputs. If you do that successfully, it’s going to be a wash. You’re not going to be economically damaged, but you’re still going to save all that water.

Roch and Mitchell both agreed that much of the water savings can come from better management. Mitchell talked about no-till methods and efficient use of fertilizer and seeds.

We don’t drop as many plants. We don’t put as many seeds out there. We put our fertilizer out there more efficiently. We’re right next to the seed. We’re a lot better managers. You never know if mother nature is gonna get you out of something so we manage our water differently.

Over the five year period of time, producers have an allocation of 55 inches per acre with significant flexibility in management. The LEMA is expected to reduce water use by approximately 28,000 acre-feet during the next five years. An acre-foot is approx. 325,000 gallons, which will result in total water savings of almost 10 billion gallons.

Roch commented, "I’d rather pump 11 inches for 30 years than 30 inches for 11 years."

A nearby ethanol plant provides alternatives to traditional crops and Roch plans to switch completely to milo production to meet his water reduction requirement.

You can raise really good milo on 6 inches of irrigation with just a little help in the spring. The seed per acre on irrigated milo is around $16 per acre. Corn is $100 per acre. Fertilizer is going to be double for corn what it is for milo.  Corn usually always makes more and it usually brings a better price. But the last couple of years they were the same price per bushel. So, milo was well, $8/bushel.  It’s not the end of the world, what we’re doing. I mean its not like they’re pulling the plug and saying , "well you’re gonna go broke now.” It’s not that way.

It just makes sense.  Use less water now so the supply will last longer.

Wayne added, I’ve heard that some people will plant wheat that first year and bank about half the allocation. Mitch was going to switch out corn with milo. Roch is going with milo. Others say business as usual. Corn the first three years and then hope that mother nature will help them out and then dryland the next two. There’s no right or wrong answer. Rock is convinced that milo for all five years is going to make more money than corn for three.

That’s why we’re so excited about the governor’s task force coming in and studying these scenarios. They may all work. And if they do, then everybody understands we can live with 11 inches and we will save that much water forever. And if they don’t work, then there’ll be some science behind why that didn’t and we shouldn’t be doing that anymore but we’ll have other options.


Energy

While energy savings are not the primary focus of the LEMA’s work, there will be significant energy savings as a result of the water conservation efforts. C  Irrigation represents approximately 15% of total energy use in agriculture.  alculating energy costs for irrigation systems is incredibly complex, depending on the type of irrigation system, the energy source used, depth to water, and many other factors. 

According to USDA’s 2003 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey, energy costs for 43 million pump-irrigated acres averaged 1.5 billion a year or $36 per irrigated acre in the United States.  In Kansas, that number is higher.  The Ag Census, "Energy Expenses for On-Farm Pumping of Irrigation Water by Water Source and Type of Energy" provides more detailed information by state, water source, and type of energy.  The table below consolidates the data from this report for the State of Kansas.

 

The table below, originally published in Kansas Irrigation Trends by Danny Rogers and Freddy Lamm reflects a significant increase in pumping costs over time.


 

Efficient irrigation can save both water and energy.  For example, Improved pump and motor efficiency can save around 25% of the energy used. For a listing of available resources, see http://www.extension.org/pages/30473/irrigation-energy-efficiency-checklist-and-tips#.Un1Fy_msiFw
 
It is easy to see how reducing the amount of water pumped for irrigation can yield significant energy savings. 
 
PHOTO GALLERY
Click to open gallery.
RESOURCES
USDA Rural Energy for America Program
Water Conservation in Irrigated Agriculture: Trends and Challenges in the Face of Emerging Demands
2007 Census of Agriculture
Evaluating Energy Use for Pumping Irrigation Water
Real Ag: Irrigation
Kansas Irrigation Trends by Danny Rogers
Full Feature Map of the Sheridan 6 LEMA
Groundwater Management District 4 Sheridan 6 High Priority Area
LEMA resources from Kansas Geological Survey
Kansas Department of Agriculture LEMA page