Sutherland: Sam Brownback’s Good Deed

sam_brownback0504One of the puzzling things about the local environmental movement is what I call the “Mrs. Jellyby Syndrome.”  This is the name for a character in Charles Dicken’s Bleak House, a woman so consumed with the plight of the natives in distant “Borrioboola-Gha” that she neglects her own family.  Another word for this is “telescopic philanthropy,” i.e. worrying about the problems in a faraway place but ignoring the more immediate crisis in your own back yard.

I hear constantly about the threats to the polar ice cap and to tropical rain forests but relatively little about a looming environmental disaster here in Kansas that is huge, immediate and indisputable.

The Ogallala Aquifer underlies much of Western Kansas, as well as most of the neighboring states.  This aquifer, which supports one-fifth of wheat, corn, and cattle produced in America, will be largely depleted in the next 50 years.  In the last 50 years 30 percent of the aquifer’s water has been used, largely for irrigated farming but also for feed lots.  Another 40 percent will be gone by 2060.  Since the natural exchange rate is only equivalent to 15 percent of the water being pumped out annually, the water in the aquifer will be exhausted sooner rather than later. Once the aquifer is exhausted, it will take anywhere from 500 to 1,300 years to recharge. (Kansas State University prepared a sobering report to that effect, published in the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences, see Associated Press article by Roxana Hegeman, 8-26-13.)

Responding to the K-State report, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has moved quickly to address the problem. 

Joan Finney

Joan Finney

Working through his Department of Agriculture (Brownback is himself a former Secretary of Agriculture, serving under the late Governor Joan Finney), the governor had a law created that encourages farmers to conserve water.  His administration, through its Water Office has also encouraged cities and water districts to increase water storage in reservoirs by recharging aquifers and dredging away sediments.  In particular the State will give Wichita half a million dollars for its aquifer recharging plan, which will be used to pull excess water from the Arkansas River and pump it into the aquifer for future use. The governor has also called for a 50 year plan to further address the long term problem.

Most impressively, a Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District has been created under the new law.  A number of the users of irrigation in that part of the state have agreed on a plan to reduce their water use by 20 percent over the next five years.  Others are expected to follow suit.  There are other even bolder proposals including running an aqueduct from the Missouri River to help take some of the burden off the aquifer for irrigation use in Western Kansas.

Obviously a lot of the impetus for this attention has come from the recent drought.  Brownback and his administration should, however, get credit for facing a problem that prior administrations, supposedly more “enlightened” and “progressive” had largely ignored.
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11 Responses to Sutherland: Sam Brownback’s Good Deed

  1. the dude says:

    It is good that finally someone is trying to do something about this growing problem.
    Western Kansas and the high plains area is such a fragile ecosystem NOBODY should be irrigating groundwater there. If you can’t get it from surface reservoirs you are SOL. For once it sounds like Brownshirt is trying to do some good for Kansas.

  2. Rich says:

    It’s Nixon going to China. Under a prior administration, these projects would have been labeled by opponents and the science deniers as more big government.

    • the dude says:

      If you have studied environmental history you would know that Nixon was one of the most environmental presidents our country has known.

      • Rich says:

        Yes, Nixon created the EPA. That further illustrates my point. If a liberal president had engaged in detente with the Chinese and Soviets and created the EPA, they’d be called communists.

  3. Orphan of the Road says:

    It’s a corn-and-soybean ghetto in the Heartland and the Big Time Operator wants to farm it all.

    Dry land farming is just one of the many government programs supporting the real welfare queens, Big Ag, Monsanto and ADM.

    Just as greedy folks began sinking the plows into the Nebraska Sand Hills to plant corn so they could then get the land into CRP payments. Never mind the ecological damage done to an extremely sensitive ecosystem by plowing the ultra-thin layer of top soil allowing it to blow away.

    But they now have a steady flow of cash to their bulging bank accounts. Cha-ching!

    Sustainable agriculture rather than corporate welfare should be our farm policy. All the talk of saving the family farms is just a way to use farmers as the Indian reservations were used to channel public funds into private bank accounts.

    Now if Brownback declares the Keystone Pipeline persona non gratis in Kansas, I might think this move on water conservation is for the people rather than to insure Tyson, Smithfield and all the other packers continue their illegal dominance of the business.

    • chuck says:

      No doubt, Monsanto and ADM are scary sons-of-bitches, but I think I read, not too long ago, that the over reach of our Dept of Ag. and the rules in place, which favor big Ag and big companies, are essentially a response to the fear of Holodomor. The fear, that manipulation of Farming by the Government with the best of intentions, or the worst of intentions (Often the result is the same.) in conjunction with a natural catastrphe, like drought etc. is the impetus to create such a large output of produce and livestock. The fear of famine.

      I watched “Food Inc” and other documentaries that are very revealing and pejorative and, it would seem, justifiably so. Still, if you read about the many many famines over the last hundred years in WESTERN countries, does that not mitigate some of the negativity associated with these companies?

      I do agree, that these guys are HUGE Welfare queens, but they do actually provide an irreplacable service, right?

      Nice article Dwight.

      • Orphan of the Road says:

        The best service they perform is sucking cash out of the government and making sure any programs, rules and regulation favor them and their business at the expense of the taxpayer and others in the same business.

        I have a friend who raises hogs outside rather than in a hydrogen sulfide heavy environment. Hey 4 Hogs is his operation. He was the Grange’s Young Farmer of the Year during the Clinton administration.

        Because his business model was not a Smithfield, Tyson, Premium Farms confinement operation, he opposed paying the check off dues. Saying they did not out any advertising which would help his business.

        At the time, and still today, the integrators ignored and violated the Packers and Stockyard Act so he would not pay the fee to the National Pork Board. Many years in court cost him lots of money.

        Today you will look far and wide for a pig farmer who is not a contractor to Big Pig. Where once farmers could get in and out of hogs when the market was right, today you would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to build facilities and then be at the mercy of the integrator for keeping your contract.

        With Big Ag you could say they provide an irreplaceable service, much in line with the mafia and the IRA.

      • Orphan of the Road says:

        PS the famines have less to do with crop failure than with political agendas, chuck.

  4. Mysterious J says:


    • paulwilsonkc says:

      This is really hurtful, Mysterious; you seem to wade through everyone else’s writings….but mine. It’s just sad.
      But alas, I don’t miss a word of Mr. Sutherland’s stories, so I understand.

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