Next Generation Farming

Equal Rights for Water

Irrigators face dilemma on pumping options during drought.

Temperatures are going to be above 100F all this week with no forecast for rain, which has made irrigation that much more of a burning issue here in Kansas.

Thanks to the intense heat and drought, irrigators have been pumping at full force this season and are now bumping up against their allotment for the year. This comes at the most critical time when the corn is in its vulnerable tasseling phase and needs water the most.

This puts corn farmers in a very vulnerable and tricky situation. If the drought continues and they have no water left that they can legally pull out of the ground, widespread crop failure is imminent. To cope, some are already abandoning ¼ or ½ of a circle (if they’re using a center-pivot irrigation system) in order to save at least a portion of the crop while sacrificing the rest. One farmer in south-central Kansas says only about half of his corn is still alive.

But some irrigators in Kansas are taking what may be an even riskier approach yet. They’re borrowing their allotment from future years, as offered in two options by the Kansas Dept. of Agricultural Division of Water Resources.

The first option, called a Flex Account Program, allows them to spread their water usage over five years, which could mean if you use all your water allotment for the five-year period in the first three years, you have nothing to use in the subsequent two years.  But that’s not all. You forgo 10% of your allotment to reduce the effect on the aquifer and on your neighboring irrigators.

The second option is a one-time permit, called the Drought Focused Emergency Term Permit, which allows irrigators to borrow a portion their allotment for 2012 in order to finish out 2011. The clincher is that whatever you use over your annual allotment this year, you have to deduct from next year’s use. Under this option, an irrigator would have to really bite the bullet if the drought continues through 2012.

It all comes down to one burning question for irrigators: When do you think the drought will end? And, if/when it does, will precipitation thereafter be enough to make up for the deficit you incurred to get you through it?

For farmers in western and southern Kansas where the drought is the most intense, this is no easy decision. The wrong move could end up costing millions for the biggest irrigators.

Standard Policy

The struggle over water use this year raises a thorny issue for the eight states that share the Ogallala Aquifer. While farmers in states like Kansas are juggling how much water they can use, irrigators in Texas have far more flexibility. Under Texas law, irrigators can remove as much water as they want, whenever they want and as fast they want.

This poses an obvious problem. Some farmers simply have more legal rights to the water than others.

And no, this problem won’t be getting simpler in the future. As the water table declines and the drought worsens, it’s more apparent than ever this needs to be resolved sooner rather than later. That means the eight states over the Ogallala, including Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota, need to agree on one policy.

According to the writers in Choices magazine, the solution is a water deeds policy that would create a market for groundwater in the same spirit as surface water markets that already exist in arid parts of the U.S. Since deeds are not issued for future generations, they argue, market forces would allocate currently usable water. Prices rise as availability declines, causing water users to remove less and reduce waste.

Sounds like the perfect solution! Does anyone want to volunteer to go try negotiating with Texas? Bring your six-shooter if you do.

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