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The 2024 Ogallala Aquifer Summit brings stakeholders together to source solutions.

Jennifer M. Latzke, Editor

April 4, 2024

5 Min Read
Kansas House Water Committee Chair Jim Minnix, R-118th, speaks with Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.
BIPARTISAN ISSUE: Kansas House Water Committee Chair Jim Minnix, R-118th (left), speaks with Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (right) at the 2024 Ogallala Aquifer Summit on March 18 in Liberal, Kan. Working to maintain and conserve the aquifer for future generations is an issue that crosses party lines and economic sectors. Courtesy of the Kansas Governor’s Office

They say: “Whiskey’s for drinkin’. Water’s for fightin’.” But at the Ogallala Aquifer Summit on March 18 and 19 in Liberal, Kan., respectful dialogue and collaboration were the order of the day.

The Ogallala Aquifer Summit is not a routine run-of-the-mill conference where attendees can sit and take notes from lectures. It’s a facilitated, hands-on, collaborative approach to crowd-sourcing ideas and solutions to address the aquifer’s depletion. With eight states having some ties to the Ogallala Aquifer, it has to be, organizers say.

“Addressing regional aquifer depletion and other water-related challenges, including drought, is vital and necessary work,” organizers Joel Lisonbee and Amy Kremen say. “This work requires a web of social connections and actions normally considered to be separate, spanning management approaches that are linked from the farm and personal level to regional and even global scales.”

Kremen is with the Irrigation Innovation Consortium. Lisonbee is with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Integrated Drought Information System. They say it’s the room full of 250 stakeholders from every sector that uses the water, sitting at tables and sharing their perspectives and challenges, that make the summit work.

This year was the third summit, with the first convened in 2018, and the second in 2021 turning to the virtual sphere because of COVID-19. The demand to be in the room this year was high, with a waiting list of those who wished to participate spanning the agricultural, municipal and business sectors.

In her welcome to attendees, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said finding solutions to the Ogallala’s depletion to extend its lifetime is not just critical to maintaining the livelihoods of those who live and work above it, but for all Kansans. It crosses party lines, urban and rural boundaries, and all segments of society.

“In the last legislative session, we passed two landmark bills by working together with legislative champions like House Water Committee Chair Jim Minnix, R-118th, and House Ranking Member Lindsey Vaughn, D-22nd,” she said. “One established a specific timeline for communities to develop strategies around maintaining water quality and quantity. The second allocated an unprecedented investment in the State Water Plan — to the tune of $35 million annually for five years.”

Kelly said last year’s move by the Kansas Water Authority to vote, for the first time ever, to reject the planned depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer puts the state on a new path of water conservation. She pointed to the success of the Sheridan 6 Local Enhanced Management Area (LEMA) in both conserving irrigation water and maintaining profitable crop production as an example that “we don’t need to choose between conserving water and growing our economy. On the contrary, one is essential to the other.”

Some of the insights and potential solutions to explore that came out of the conference included:

The Ogallala Aquifer provides enormous value to the land above it. Nathan Hendricks, a professor in the Kansas State University Department of Agricultural Economics, said research shows that the aquifer adds $3.5 billion to the total value of land above it in Kansas alone. If the aquifer is depleted, Kansas would lose $33 million per year by 2050 just in value of returns to the land above the aquifer, and the effect accelerates as the aquifer increases depletion. The beef and dairy sectors that rely on aquifer-irrigated feedstocks would stand to lose $2.4 billion a year. And input suppliers — those who sell fertilizer and crop protection products — would stand to lose as well.

Vincent Gauthier, manager for climate-smart agriculture for the Environmental Defense Fund, said there is a key lynchpin that holds the value chain together above the Ogallala Aquifer. Finding it will be key, he suspects, to finding workable solutions for the most stakeholders.

“Is it grain production?” Gauthier asked. “Is it turning grain production into more forage production and shipping in grains [from states with more water]? What is it that’s the greatest part of the value? It’s important for stakeholders to figure that out and preserve that key thing that holds the value chain together so we don’t lose the whole sector.”

Using peer groups of farmers to share irrigation conservation tools and techniques. Brian Lengel, a farmer and rancher from south Yuma County in Colorado, shared about the founding of the Colorado Master Irrigator Program. Modeled off the Texas Master Irrigator Program, it’s a four-week course for 25 producers, crop advisers or others with interests in agricultural irrigation.

For one day each of the four weeks the class learns from experts in hydrology, emitting, equipment maintenance, soil properties, residue control and more. The class members are incentivized with a $2,000 stipend to participate, as well as special priority ranking points for Environmental Quality Incentives Programs through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Graduates agree to participate in nonintrusive data gathering for three years to collect data on how changes have worked on their farms to be used to improve the program. Lengel said the incentives approach has worked to encourage participation, especially the ability to get priority ranking points for conservation programs.

Livestock businesses consider the aquifer in their long-term development plans. Joel Jarnagin, president and CEO of Cobalt Cattle Co. with six feedyards in Kansas, Texas and Colorado, spoke about the measures his company has put into place to conserve their draws on the aquifer.

Cobalt averages 300,000 head daily occupancy, and through careful management, it has reduced its usage to 10.5 to 11.7 gallons of water per head per day, down from the industry average of 15 to 16 gallons per head per day in the 1980s and ‘90s.

The company uses storage tanks in the yard to store water when it’s most economic to pump lower producing wells. It captures overflows of water at its facilities to recycle it for use elsewhere on the operation. It has real-time sensors on its wells that show groundwater levels on an hourly basis.

“We needed a new feed mill [at the Wichita County location], and I needed to know what our wells were doing before I invested that large amount of capital,” Jarnagin said.

Additionally, Cobalt is working with its nutritionists and to see what other feedstock options it may utilize in its rations that could be water-saving crops.

To learn more, the Ogallala Aquifer Summit provides white papers from each state over the aquifer that share insights, activities and partnerships that are bringing benefits to the issue. Visit irrigationinnovation.org/2024-summit-white-papers.

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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