Water survey: Western Kansas farmers report care for business, communities

By Pat Melgares, K-State Research and Extension news service

MANHATTAN, Kan. – A wide-reaching survey of Kansas agricultural producers’ perceptions of the importance of water has shown that farmers not only care about protecting that vital resource for their own operations, but also for the well-being of their local communities.

The survey includes responses from more than 1,000 Kansas producers currently farming or living in the region of the Ogallala Aquifer, which touches nearly every county in the western one-third of Kansas. The Kansas Geological Survey estimates that the High Plains Aquifer – which includes the Ogallala – supplies between 70-80% of the water used by Kansans each day.

Some of the survey’s key results are available online through the K-State Research and Extension bookstore.

“Remember that these are farmers and they live and breathe this resource,” said Jonathan Aguilar, a water engineer at K-State Research and Extension’s Southwest Research Center in Garden City. “So this is their livelihood and they recognize the importance of the Ogallala Aquifer.

“But, more importantly, they were also concerned about their community because the aquifer supplies the livelihood for the rest of the community. They are not just thinking about themselves, but also about the health of the community moving forward.”

K-State sociologist Matthew Sanderson led the research team, which included Amariah Fischer, a graduate student in K-State’s Department of Geography and Geospatial Sciences.

Sanderson said the survey sought to uncover how producers view their role in groundwater use; what they see as consequences of groundwater depletion; whether they believe groundwater should be conserved.

The goal, he added, was to provide an understanding of producer’s attitudes and beliefs about water in the Ogallala Aquifer region.  It was the first region-wide survey conducted since 1984.

“It’s clear that there is a desire to conserve groundwater throughout the region,” Sanderson said. “The question moving ahead, of course, is how to put the desire of the overwhelming majority of producers into action.”

Aguilar said one key message he takes form the survey is that most producers already are doing something in their current operation to conserve water. As an example, he notes that in the past 30 years, most producers have made a transition from flood irrigation – in which water reaches a field through pipes or ditches – to center pivot irrigation.

“Typically, flood irrigation was about 50-65% efficient, whereas center pivot irrigation is 80-95% efficient, so we know that we have made big strides in terms of conserving water,” Aguilar said.

Newer technologies – such as mobile drip irrigation and sub-surface drip irrigation — are helping some producers improve even more, according to Aguilar.

“From my technical point of view,” he said, “technology is only one piece in the puzzle, but there might be other options. And that’s where K-State and others come in…trying to figure out the other pieces to help farmers be more efficient.”

Aguilar notes having a good understanding of producers’ attitudes toward water conservation will help university researchers and other state groups support the industry more effectively over time.

Full survey results are available at www.bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/SRL144.pdf. Aguilar also recently spoke on the topic during a series on state water topics currently airing on the Kansas State University podcast, Agriculture Today.

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