I ran across an editorial in the New York Times published yesterday (December 1, 2011) that was not very complimentary to water management in the High Plains - state or local. I felt compelled to comment, but it appears that the NY Times does not value any further discussion as there was no opportunity to do so - odd. So I thought I'd just blog about it instead. The title was "Running Dry on the Great Plains" and was written by Julene Bair of Longmont, Colorado.
I happen to know Julene as she is originally from NW Kansas (Sherman County). We actually corresponded for a while on groundwater issues and have even discussed said issues in my office a time or two. I considered Julene to be very thoughtful and she seemed quite diligent in her fact gathering. The questions she asked me were good ones, but tended to be focused on her groundwater and irrigation experiences in Sherman County - one of the most depleted areas of GMD 4. I feel I answered her questions honestly but always tried to broaden the scope of where I sensed she was wanting to go - damn all irrigation and reclaim the groundwater to pre-human use levels. I stressed that all of GMD 4 was not as dire as Sherman County, and, the value of local control was the ability to bring about any outcome the majority of the landowners and water users wanted - as long as they took the responsibility and spent their efforts working on the issues.
If you read the editorial she claims that water controls imposed by local water districts (run by irrigators themselves and by state legislators dependent on the farm vote) have been minimal at best. She is entitled to her opinion but I would respond that if she's right, it's simply because collectively the locals have not embraced their role effectively enough to do otherwise. Since our discussions of perhaps 6 years or so ago, GMD 4 has crafted an enhanced management process where local subunits in the district are encouraged and empowered to go well beyond the existing district regulations, which while we're on the subject, had long ago stopped new development, appropriately controlled water right changes, metered all wells, controlled irrigation tailwater and lots more.
Two such subunits were defined in Sherman County and both of them met twice and then decided to do nothing more. Over in Sheridan County their subunit is proposing the most aggressive enhanced management proposal yet in the state of Kansas. I don't think the fact that enhanced management is not happening in Sherman County means that local control is a failure - at least not as much as apparently Julene does. I guess it could sound like I'm pointing the finger of blame toward Julene and her ilk for not addressing these problems, when I'm sure they're thinking "That's the GMD's job." I guess the point is that in our local management scheme, right or wrong, it's both our jobs. The GMD has created the subunit ability to make things happen via local involvement - all we need now are the interested players.
The only issue I think Julene got really wrong is her claim that we are wasting the water we use - by growing corn which uses fertilizers and pesticides that pollute. It is clear we're not using water the way she thinks it should be used, but I don't think this by itself constitutes waste. To most water users, leaving the water in the ground doing nothing is a waste. The fact is, neither of these uses is a waste - they are both political choices that someone has to make. Now I return to the issue of local control. See how important it really is?
Julene, let's keep talking.