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Farmers Forge Partnerships to Address Water Security

February 26, 2014
By: Rhonda Brooks, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor
iStock Farmers Handshake

Collaboration and communication are helping these producers improve the long-term outlook for their operations and their local communities.

Water is a constant worry for farmers whose livelihoods depend on irrigation to sustain their crops. But one group of farmers in northwest Kansas has agreed to voluntarily reduce the amount of water they pull from the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate their crops of corn, sorghum, soybeans and wheat.

The farmers, whose land covers nearly 99 square miles and 25,000 acres, have agreed to pump 20% less water from the aquifer during the next five years, says Mitchell Baalman, a third-generation farmer from Hoxie, Kan. Baalman is one of the leaders of the group which represents the state’s first Local Enhanced Management Area (LEMA) for water conservation.

"Our aquifer is declining a foot-and-a-half per year," notes Baalman, whose farm, FDK Partnership, encompasses 12,000 crop acres. "There are too many wells pulling water out of there—that’s what it comes down to."

Approximately 195 wells are in the LEMA. On average, the wells pull 31,000 acre-feet of water per year from the shallow Ogallala. The aquifer lies beneath the Great Plains in an area that covers approximately 174,000 square miles and portions of eight states, including Kansas.

A four-year study conducted by researchers from Kansas State University estimates at the current rate of water use, the aquifer will be 70% depleted by 2060.

Baalman and the other farmers participating in the LEMA hope their reduced use of water will slow the aquifer’s decline rate and extend local groundwater supplies.

State officials check the well pumps to make sure farmers are compliant.

Baalman is well aware of the bleak outlook for the aquifer’s long-term viability. "Twenty percent won’t be enough of a reduction" he acknowledges, "but we had to start somewhere. We had to change the mentality of farmers."

The need for change is what influenced a decision by the management team of Hillside Ranch, based in Blaine County, Idaho, to collaborate with MillerCoors and The Nature Conservancy, on ways to preserve water supplies.

"Some people ask ‘How can you work together?’ and I tell them quite well, actually," notes Gary Beck, farm manager.

Beck says while he doesn’t "always agree" with the environmental stands the ranch’s partners sometimes take, he says there have been solid benefits from working with them.

From a local community perspective, Beck notes that the conservation measures the ranch has employed help improve its soil conservation and keep the water in nearby Silver Creek healthy.

From a strictly business perspective, the executives with MillerCoors and The Nature Conservancy have helped members of the ranch management team understand and use the farm data they have collected over the years.

As for difficulties, "the hardest part about any partnership," Beck says, "is keeping the lines of communication open."

Baalman agrees. He says good, ongoing communication between farmers—who often don’t want to communicate—is always a challenge.

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