Southwestern Kansas water crisis through the eyes of a liberal farmer: ‘This drought is real’

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TOPEKA – Farmer Tom Willis’ attempt to get some sleep before testifying before a US Senate agriculture committee studying the drought was interrupted by a 3 a.m. phone call from his home.

Strangely timed calls usually mean cattle are loose on a highway or an inebriated cowboy needs help, Willis said. Instead, his wife called in the middle of the night with the good news that it was raining in Liberal. In the Willis area of ​​operations in southwest Kansas, 1.2 inches of moisture fell. This is the first measurable rainfall since August 2021, he said.

Soggy soil in and around 7,500 acres farmed by the Willis family in four Kansas counties was relief in a region frustrated by drought. The lack of rain has increased dependence on the already stressed groundwater resource known as the Ogallala Aquifer. The drought is expected to lower yields of corn, wheat, soybeans and sorghum in Kansas, as farm input costs for fuel and fertilizer have increased.

“This drought is real,” Willis told the Senate Agriculture Committee in Washington, D.C. “The problem is real. It can’t be thrown down the road. It can’t be thrown down the road, at least in western Kansas.

Willis was in the nation’s capital with Earl Lewis, chief water resources engineer with the Kansas Department of Agriculture, to testify Tuesday about ongoing water issues.

US Senator Roger Marshall, a Republican from Kansas on the agriculture committee, said alarming shortages in far western population centers had captured the public’s attention. He said the issues with the Arkansas River, which winds through Kansas, were significant but lesser known.

“In much of Kansas, unfortunately, it’s like a four-wheeled trail,” Marshall said.

He said a third of Kansas is experiencing severe drought. One consequence, the senator said, was an expected 100 million bushel decline in this year’s wheat crop. Cutting the crop by a third could cost Kansas farmers about $1 billion, he said.

“This lack of rain not only hurts agricultural production at its most crucial time, but also affects herders and families who are victims of wildfires raging across the plains, resulting in hundreds of thousands of lost dollars. into assets, and at worst, homes and lives,” Marshall said.

Earl Lewis, chief water resources engineer at the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said the drought was taking its toll on the Ogallala Aquifer used to irrigate Kansas crops. He urged the US Senate to invest in drought research and mitigation. (Kansas Reflector screenshot from US Senate YouTube channel)

Lewis, the state Department of Agriculture water engineer, told federal lawmakers that the Western States Water Council representing Kansas and 17 other states believe Congress has an important role to play in responding to Drought. He said the collection, analysis and distribution of rainfall data to all levels of government and to individual growers was essential to the formation and acceptance of intervention policies.

He said local, state and federal authorities should collaborate on drought relief strategies and the government should share remediation costs with farmers looking for a way out of the crisis. Federal programs focused on soil conservation can be modified to focus more on water management and irrigation issues, he said.

“The situation in the West is dire,” Lewis said. “The situation on the Great Plains is similar in that over time we get less rainfall and face drought.”

Lewis said the drought prompted farmers to pump extra water from the Ogallala Aquifer, an instinct that contributed to a faster decline of that water source.

“If we don’t act, we will end up in a situation where this resource will disappear along with the agricultural production associated with this irrigation,” he said.

Willis said that in his first year of farming in southwest Kansas, he irrigated his crops to the extent that it lowered the water level in his wells by an average of 10 feet. He said he knew that rate was unsustainable, but he also understood that investments in conservation had to be balanced with the need to be profitable.

He replaced sprinkler irrigation systems, installed moisture probes deep in the ground and turned to telemetry to better monitor the operation of water wells. Remote controls have been added to circular irrigation equipment so that sprinklers can be instantly stopped if there is a mechanical problem with a swivel. His corn-soybean-corn crop rotation was modified to include sorghum, a hearty crop he said suited the dry southwest of Kansas.

He said changing the farm’s approach to water use saved 1.2 billion gallons over a six-year period. This represented a 50% reduction in water use without sacrificing net farm income, he said.

“It’s real water and it’s going to be there for my son, for my grandson, and for the way of life that we’ve chosen to live,” Willis said.

Willis, chief executive of ethanol producer Conestoga Energy Holdings, urged the US Senate to reform federal farm assistance programs so they are flexible enough to allow farmers to respond to seasonal changes in environmental and economic conditions. He said the federal incentives in the new farm bill could help convince growers to adopt technologies or practices that can conserve ground and surface water.

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