One 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.
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.