Irrigators and stream depletion: Not guilty
While some argue that the irrigator is the beneficiary of the income produced by irrigation and that only the farmer should pay any tax for compliance purposes, the groundwater irrigator has a hard time understanding why he should pay 90 percent of the bill when he only causes 10 percent to 15 percent of the problem.
A lot of people who think irrigation is the primary cause of the stream depletions have a hard time believing that conservation causes most of the depletions. Please consider the following facts. There are about 1.2 million irrigated acres in the Republican River Basin; however, there are more than 2 million acres with terraces in the basin. Terraces are essentially two-foot high dams designed to stop water from running off the field.
The state adds about 150,000 miles of terraces each year. Few of these terraces are on irrigated ground. Most of them are on non-irrigated farmland. There are also a large number of stock ponds. Over the last 20 years, farming practices have changed to no-till on a large part of the ground. This also captures the water on the field and keeps it away from the stream.
About 65 percent of the reduction in stream flows is caused by conservation practices such as these. This percentage is higher in the west and lower in the east, and it varies from year to year. However, it is a number that James Koelliker, a Kansas State professor documents. You can read his report at http://tinyurl.com/y2x8av
There are about 100,000 acres of trees along the Republican River and its tributaries that did not used to be there. According to a study done by the Bureau of Reclamation, the trees became widespread because the dams were built and stopped the floods that periodically killed many of them. I think controlling prairie fires also helped the trees to proliferate. No one knows for sure how much water trees use, but numerous studies have been done in efforts to estimate that. Here is a summary of the studies: http://tinyurl.com/2f524o
The groundwater irrigator does have an effect on the stream; but according to the computer simulation that is used to govern things, 96 percent of all depletions to the stream in any year are caused by the irrigation within 2 miles of the stream. That means that the wells far from the stream cause, at most, 4 percent of all irrigation-related depletions -- which are only 15 percent, at most, of the total problem. All farms that are more than 10 miles from the stream cause less than 0.2 percent of the current problem. So, take the irrigator in Perkins or Hayes County who is many miles from the stream. According to the computer simulation, his pumping for the last 60 years has not had an effect on the stream yet and probably won't for another several hundred years. The reason he is paying a large tax isn't to account for something he is doing but, instead, is to help keep the larger community functioning, as a whole.
He is helping the economy of McCook, Grant, Imperial and other area towns to survive. That is a good thing for him to do; yet, it still hard to do when he has to write out that multi-thousand dollar water check each May and September.
It isn't fair to the farmer to accuse him of something he isn't guilty of and demand that he pay restitution for something he didn't do. What he is actually doing is paying to help keep the community functioning.
He should be seen as the financial savior rather than the ogre that created the problem. The problem was created by many different things that our society, as a whole, wanted and still wants.
The federal government has forced conservation into place. It is a good thing, but it has the unintended consequence of reducing stream flow.
We don't want to remove the conservation practices. But, shutting off irrigation wells will not cause the water to return to the stream like it used to flow unless we also remove the conservation and the trees.
If the goal is to make the streams flow like they did in the 1950s -- which is when they were at their peak, then we have to shut off all the wells, remove the dams, cut down the trees, and breach the millions of two-foot high dams as well as, most importantly, find a way for all of the people here to either continue to make a living or to depopulate the area. Reducing groundwater pumping alone will not solve the problem nor even make a significant dent in the problem.
Changing the amount of water pumped on an annual basis has almost no effect on the streamflow. You can double or halve the pumping rate on the wells more than two miles from the stream and have no significant effect on the stream flow in the next decade. According to the computer simulation that governs us, you can shut off all wells within two miles of the stream and only 23 percent of the water that was pumped by those wells will enter the stream. Plus, it will take seven years to get to the 23 percent level where it maxes out. The other 77 percent never gets there, according to the simulation.
What concerns me the most is that WaterClaim has pointed out several serious problems with how the State is measuring compliance. Reducing allocations may please those who cast the irrigator as a villain but this won't put much actual water in the stream and also punishes the innocent.