Nebraska's solution to water shortage is to make the problem even worse
This is a tale of practically unimaginable waste and bad sense.
No, we're not talking about federal government spending. For this also is a tale of extreme environmental -- and long-term economic -- folly.
The tale starts with irrigation farming on the High Plains, where the vast and rich underground water resource called the Ogallala Aquifer was for farmers like a seemingly endless gold strike for a prospector. A 1943 compact between three states governed sharing of the Republican River, which flows from Colorado through southwest Nebraska and into Kansas, eventually into the Kansas River.That compact was the basis for Kansas suing the two other states in 1998, claiming over-pumping had reduced the Republican to a trickle by the time it got to Kansas. A 2002 settlement in the suit forced Nebraska to take responsibility.
And so we arrive to today -- and Nebraska's solution to the problem. Common sense would suggest that would be curtailing the pumping for irrigation. But, no, Nebraska decided that would be too economically damaging to its state. So, instead, the state drilled more water wells and started pumping the clear, clean water from the Ogallala and dumping it into Republican River tributaries to increase stream flow.
And the state has spent $135 million to do it in four Natural Resources Districts -- a misnomer if we've ever heard one -- and send water into Kansas, The Salina Journal reports.
It was one matter to irrigate crops such as corn that wouldn't otherwise grow on the High Plains when this vast underground ocean seemed practically limitless. But then we realized we were draining it rapidly. A third of it is gone, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback told The Journal, saying Nebraska's pumping to put water in the river was news to him.
"That's not the kind of answer we're looking for. We'd like a natural and sustainable long-term answer in the river system," he said.
Mother Nature could recharge the Ogallala if allowed, but not only is Nebraska declining to reduce use, it's pumping more to the surface. And water experts estimate that a third to one half of the water is lost to the ground and evaporation before it even enters Kansas. Some of the new wells are more than 200 miles upstream from where the Republican enters Kansas.
All told, Nebraska will pump more than 26 billion gallons of water a year into the Republican -- that's about the contents of a good-sized Kansas lake -- and spend probably more than $1 million a year in electricity to do it.
What's the alternative? Simple: Stop irrigating crops that God never meant to be grown on the High Plains. But Nebraska officials feared that would be too big of a blow to the region's economy.
Sounds a little like the argument that we should not worry about climate change because curbing greenhouse gas emissions would be hard on the U.S. economy.
Western Nebraska isn't going to have an economy when the Ogallala runs dry.
Kansas has its issues with over appropriation of water rights for irrigation. And Kansas has struggled with the concept that what government once gave away -- when supply seemed plentiful -- now government may have to take away. But Nebraska's waste of vital groundwater resources is on a whole other plane.
The states need to get together again and figure out a new vision to save water resources -- not squander the last remaining drops. This compact clearly isn't working.
-- Montgomery is on the editorial board of the Hutchinson (Kans.) News.