Most Kansas farmers, especially those who follow water issues, are familiar with the Sheridan 6 and more recently, the new decision to include all of Groundwater Management District 4 in a Local Enhanced Management Area for water conservation. But far fewer are familiar with the American Association for the Advancement of Science or its latest report on how communities across the U.S. are responding to climate change.
Sheridan County and its efforts to deal with an arid climate, a falling aquifer and higher-than-normal temperatures are in the spotlight with the issuance of the How We Respond report. The report features details and perspectives from 18 communities across the U.S., with a goal of offering communities new ideas to combat climate change and ways to make their communities stronger and more resilient.
Brett Oelke, a fifth-generation farmer born and raised in Sheridan County and a board member for GMD4, was one of the farmers who worked with AAAS to share some experiences and ideas from his farm.
Oelke farmed first with his dad before starting his personal operation in 2008. He and his wife, Leslea, have three children: Emma 11, Caleb, 7 and Lauren, 2.
“Those kids are three good reasons for me to participate in water conservation efforts,” Oelke said.
When the Sheridan 6 (six farmers in the most depleted area of Sheridan County) first answered the call for voluntary water reduction available through the LEMA program in 2013, they were responding to an initiative from Gov. Sam Brownback’s efforts to develop 50-year plan for the future of water in Kansas. They agreed to reduce their water usage by 20%. They weren’t thinking so much of how to combat climate change but more of how to preserve a precious resource essential to their livelihood.
Incentive to do something
It was an effort undertaken with a measure trepidation but with a full dose of determination. Initially, there was widespread opposition — irrigation is vital to growing crops in the arid High Plains and producers feared what a reduction of water and a corresponding drop in yields would do to their personal finances and the local economy.
But Oelke said keen awareness of the consequences of continuing to mine the aquifer was a strong incentive. The Ogallala, which underlies eight western U.S, states, varies in depth and is very slow to recharge.
Back in 1950, when irrigation from the groundwater was first introduced, the resources of the aquifer seemed limitless. But by the 1970s, it had become obvious that it was not. Farmers in Kansas and Texas saw alarming drops in water levels and reduced production from wells that had to be drilled deeper and deeper to reach water.
For decades, the aquifer depletion was termed a “looming crisis” and there was a lot of conversation about how to slow or stop it. By 2012, for the Sheridan 6, it was action time.
Not are we going to do it, but how
“There were many, many meetings with producers in the area to get their input on how this should be developed,” said Shannon Kenyon, assistant manager of GMD4. “It really wasn’t an option of we are or aren’t going to do it, but how are we going to do it.”
They started the five-year LEMA with an eye on its impact on their personal finances and the regional economy. They changed farming practices, kept careful track of expenses, implemented irrigation practices to reduce losses to evaporation, planted lower populations of thirsty crops such as corn and applied less fertilizer.
At the end of the first five-year project in 2017, an economic analysis completed by Bill Golden, a Kansas State University economist, found that cash flows had actually improved as they used less water.
Over the course of the project, rainfall was below average in the first two years and above average in the last three. In part because of those wetter years and new technologies such as moisture probes and variable rate irrigation, the Sheridan 6 only met their 20% water savings goal, but almost doubled it, saving 39% of water use over the course of the LEMA, Golden found.
Those results inspired the rest of GMD4 and they took the effort district-wide. Jan. 1, 2018 was the first day of a GMD-wide LEMA.
“There are some farmers that the chief engineer exempted from the LEMA because they are in spots where the water table is improving and wells are not endangered,” Oelke said. “There’s an area in northwest Graham County where there is not much irrigation and they didn’t end up over-appropriating water rights.
"In hindsight, if we would have known the impact, we could have gone to center pivot initially. If we had never had flood irrigation, our situation today would be much, much better.”
Oelke said subsurface drip would have been even better, although he has major problems with rodent damage in the areas where he does have drip. So far, he said, he has not installed mobile drip irrigation. “I’ve researched DragonLine but I haven’t installed it. Some of my neighbors have and it’s pretty effective,” he said.
He said much of the success at maintaining income while reducing water use has come from growing less thirsty crops, 335.4% more sorghum and 233% less corn compared to neighbors outside the LEMA. He said no-till has been widely adopted by there have been challenges in growing cover crops.
“In a moisture-limited environment, cover crops take enough moisture that we have problems with yields on the cash crop,” he said. “For people who can improve the cover crop value with a grazing operation, that might be an option. It didn’t work for me because it would require building fences, getting water set up and figuring out how to get the labor to get all that done. But it’s a great concept.”
He's been happy with the wet years of 2018 and 2019, he said.
“We shut our irrigation wells down on Aug. 6 and have yet to fire them back up,” he said. “That’s almost unheard of out here.”
At the same time, Oelke and others are worried about Kansas’s water “normals.” Wet years are almost always followed by dry years, and in western Kansas it’s not about whether drought will return but when it will return, how severe it will be and how long it will last.
The How We Respond project from AAAS predicts that over the next century, as temperatures continue to rise, Kansas will suffer.
“If no reductions in greenhouse gas emissions take place, the southern Great Plains is projected to experience an additional 30 to 60 days per year above 100 degrees [F] by the end of the century,” the report says.
The AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science. It was founded in 1848 and includes more than 250 affiliated societies and academies of science. To read their most recent report on climate science, the profile of Sheridan County and all the communities spotlighted for their efforts, visit howwerespond.aaas.org.