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Reimagining water research in KansasReimagining water research in Kansas

New multi-institutional Kansas Water Institute launches at Kansas State University.

Jennifer M. Latzke

November 21, 2023

4 Min Read
Aerial shot of large pond
WATER MATTERS: The newly launched Kansas Water Institute will use a multidisciplinary approach across institutions and colleges to find answers to the state’s water challenges. Courtesy of Kansas State University

Kansas State University launched the Kansas Water Institute Nov. 14.

Wait, doesn’t the university already have a Water Institute?

“So, the Kansas Water Resource Institute has been housed at Kansas State University as part of the Water Resources Act of 1964,” explains Susan Metzger, director of strategic interdisciplinary program development for K-State and also the director of the KWRI. “It’s always been a fairly small entity housed within the College of Agriculture.” For years, KWRI did impactful work for Kansas farmers using funding from the U.S. Geological Survey, Metzger adds, but its research and expertise typically had an agricultural focus.

The new Kansas Water Institute will build on that legacy, amplify the project to a university-wide level, and broaden the scope of the work to bring in experts from every corner of K-State and beyond. It’s part of the K-State Opportunity Agenda of the Next-Gen K-State Strategic Plan announced this fall.

“The strength of the Kansas Water Institute will be its interdisciplinary approach,” Metzger says. Water issues aren’t just an engineering challenge or a policy challenge; rather, they are many interconnected aspects of environmental, economic and sociological issues. Currently there are more than 75 faculty members just at K-State who are working on water-related issues, but often with a very narrow focus.

“We know that there is so much talent at all of our institutions across the state,” she says. “Why do we operate in silos separate from each other, when we could be pulling together our talents and our resources to tackle these problems together?”

Breaking down walls

The Kansas Water Institute will pull expertise from every K-State college, campus and Research and Extension station, and work with similar experts housed at other state institutions and in the state government. Before this collaborative effort, those experts would be competing for grants and funding from the federal government and other entities against each other. Now, they can coordinate their resources better to compete for those national dollars under the KWI.

Metzger gave the example of PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated substances), the “forever chemical” that’s been found in all of our water supplies. It’s a growing water quality concern for the U.S.

“We know that we have research talent at K-State, and at the University of Kansas, and elsewhere that can help really drive research that would be important on that issue to Kansans,” Metzger says. “We have not yet been able to pull ourselves together in a way to be competitive for those national dollars. This institute allows us to really create that coordination hub to be competitive.” Also at the top of the priority list will be inclusion research on novel irrigation and water management approaches, reservoir sediment reduction strategies, urban stormwater mitigation, risk factors for water contaminant-driven disease, social perceptions and behaviors around water use, and climate modeling.

Farmers are already making many changes to their water use through technology and cropping systems, but there’s more work to be done, Metzger says.

Metzger says one of the most exciting aspects of the Kansas Water Institute will be the student component. She anticipates that it will be a draw for young people interested in water-related issues and a future career in water.

“We have got to recruit and we need the pipeline of talent to fill the workforce because our water resource challenges are not going to be fulfilled in our lifetime,” she says. Having this interdisciplinary approach can not only attract new talent to the field, but help train them to look at problems with a broader scope in the future.

Momentum building

There is a wave of momentum building in the state to put resources toward water. Last year, the Kansas Water Authority voted for the first time to reject planned depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. This means for the first time, Kansans — including many farmers — agreed to a policy of conservation, not depletion when it comes to the groundwater source.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly addressed the state’s Conference on the Future of Water Nov. 15, and spoke about prioritizing the state’s water challenges in her second term.

  • A new senior advisor on water, Vijay Ramasamy, was added to the governor’s staff to work across agencies and with state and local partners from every sector.

  • A new water subcabinet was launched that will have representatives from the Kansas Water Office and the Kansas departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Environment and Wildlife and Parks. The water subcabinet will take an all-of-government approach to water issues and programs.

  • HB 2302 allocated an unprecedented $35 million annual investment in the state water plan for the next five years, fully funding the plan.

The new Kansas Water Institute is part of these efforts.

“We have the governor’s support, we have the legislative support, we have this university coalition driving the research, and we now have that boots-on-the-ground that will get the work done,” Metzger says.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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