“We know there are some places that are more at risk than others, and some places are known to have a longer supply of several hundred years,” Staggenborg said. “There’s no doubt about it. We have to start sitting down and making serious decisions now about how we want to manage both agricultural water use, as well as water by everyone else. We need to quit viewing this as purely an agricultural issue and view it as a societal issue.”
Higher food costs and less water available for home use could be the result of a dried-up aquifer. Everyone needs water, Staggenborg said, but everyone needs to look beyond his or her front door and farm and understand that reduction has to happen everywhere. If that is realized now, it might prevent a financial fight that no one wants over water.
“I think what would happen before we pump it dry is industries and urban users are going to be willing to pay more money for that water, because it has a higher value to them than agriculture,” he said. “That’s one that I’m not sure people in agriculture have thought about as much.”
If that happens, he said, cattle and swine feeding operations and dairies might be forced to close, which would diminish the support industries around crop production.
“There’s an argument that we can bring corn in from other places in the United States and not worry about growing it locally to keep the livestock feeding and dairy operations going,” Staggenborg said. “What does that do to the person who sells seed, sells fertilizer, sells farm equipment, sells irrigation equipment? Those are big economic drivers to all of these communities in western Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska—all up through the aquifer. Those people need to be consulted as well, so that they can voice their concerns and the things that affect them, as well as have an understanding of the potential impact.”
Reducing irrigated forage could help save water, but it also might bring higher transportation and production costs, which could translate to higher food costs for consumers. The ripple effect could lead to people moving from the area, putting the western Kansas population at pre-1900s levels, Staggenborg said.
Steward explained more about his Ogallala Aquifer depletion study in a video interview, available on the K-State Research and Extension YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sO6JRgQ6x4). To find out more about water management and conservation practices for irrigation, as well as for urban uses for lawns and gardens, several K-State Research and Extension publications are available online (http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/bookstore/).