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Saving what's left of the underground water used for large-scale farms in west Kansas

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Great Plains are the nation's breadbasket, but after decades of irrigating crops, the underground water that powers large-scale farming in western Kansas is quickly drying up. David Condos of the Kansas News Service reports on a plan to try to preserve more of what's left.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: Fly west over Kansas and you'll see the prairie transform into a patchwork of green circles, mile after mile of geometric crop fields spun into the near desert landscape by wells that tap water hidden beneath the dry surface. For more than six decades, one of those wells showered the grain on Travis Leonard's family farm.

TRAVIS LEONARD: This well's been...

CONDOS: But as drought intensified this fall, the well began pumping up sand instead of clear water, and he shut it down for the last time.

LEONARD: This was his final hurrah.

CONDOS: His farm used to have 16 wells like this one. It's now down to three. In a decade or two, he predicts this part of southwest Kansas won't have any irrigation wells left.

LEONARD: That day's coming. It's happened to a lot of people already. It will happen to everybody eventually.

CONDOS: The region's main water source, the Ogallala Aquifer, is being sucked dry, and farmers and local leaders can't agree on how to save it without choking the livelihoods of the people who live here.

Seventy-five miles north of Leonard's dry well, dozens of farmers gathered to discuss a possible answer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're going to start, so if we can find a...

CONDOS: It's a new plan to cut irrigation in four counties by 10%. Now, even that 10% cut won't be enough to stop the aquifer's decline. But Katie Durham, who leads the local groundwater district, says it's a vital first step.

KATIE DURHAM: This is do or die. I mean, without water, these communities, this infrastructure, it wouldn't be here.

CONDOS: Under the plan, a local board, not the state, would make water conservation decisions. That doesn't mean it's all kumbaya. One of the farmers at the hearing, Cameron Shea (ph), says many irrigators are still wary of any water limits.

CAMERON SHEA: It has to be done smartly. It can't just be done by a bunch of activists who come in and don't know what they're talking about and do radical things.

CONDOS: Although farmers use irrigation across the Midwest, it's especially critical in places like western Kansas that don't get much rain, and more than 90% of all the water used in this area goes to grow crops. But the H2O buffet is closing down, and the climate is heating up. Kansas State University researcher Vaishali Sharda says if western Kansas keeps irrigating as it has, the science is clear about what happens next.

VAISHALI SHARDA: There is no guessing. We know that the aquifer is depleting, right? It's depleting at an unsustainable pace.

CONDOS: But remember, using that water is what built the region's economy. Take southwest Kansas. It relies more on irrigation than anywhere else in the state, and plans to restrict pumping there haven't gotten very far. Mark Rude, who leads the local groundwater district, says strict rules to save the aquifer don't make sense if they come at the expense of the economy.

MARK RUDE: What we're trying to preserve here is not only the community as a whole, but the business strategy, the overall viability of that community.

CONDOS: But in other parts of Kansas where there already are irrigation restrictions, results are promising. Two years ago, farmers in a county near their proposed new limits cut their irrigation by 25%.

BRIAN BOX: This field didn't receive any irrigation water. It was...

CONDOS: That's where Brian Box (ph) sits in a combine, harvesting his last cornfield of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUTTON PUSH TONES)

CONDOS: Drought left its mark here. His combine has to skim the ground to reach the short corn plants out the front window. But he was still able to grow something.

BOX: Regardless of whether somebody likes it or not, we've got to do something to extend the life of this aquifer or it's not going to be there.

CONDOS: He says adjusting to a future with less water may not be painless, but in western Kansas, it's a matter of survival.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUTTON PUSH TONES)

CONDOS: For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Leoti, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Condos