Researchers Focus on Kansas Water Conservation

As drought continues to impact farms in many parts of Kansas, a Kansas State University official says researchers are working continually to provide solutions to the state’s water challenges.

Susan Metzger, director of strategic multidisciplinary program development and the director of the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment (KCARE), calls the university’s work “extensive,” saying it is the product of K-State’s “prominent role in irrigation and water use research in Kansas.”

“Kansas has about 3 million acres of irrigated land supporting agriculture, our largest industry. We are facing a changing climate that could result in very different weather patterns for our state, and it’s critical for us to understand how to conserve our most important natural resource while still using it to benefit our farmers and all those that benefit from Kansas agriculture,” Metzger said.

She adds that the diversity of water resources is abundant in Kansas. The eastern side of the state typically receives more than 40 inches of precipitation in an average year, while the western part of the state is very dry. Without the abundant rainfall, those in western Kansas mainly rely on the Ogallala-High Plains Aquifer for their water supplies.

The Ogallala Aquifer underlies eight states, including Kansas. It is the largest underground reservoir in the United States and plays a crucial role in sustaining agriculture, economies and communities in the region.

“The problem is that the Ogallala, despite being mind-bogglingly vast, is a finite resource. We’re using it faster than it can replenish. That’s why K-State’s work in irrigation technology and other water-related research is so important,” Metzger said.

The research team at the Southwest Research-Extension Center in Garden City has been working on many different projects, such as implementing deficit irrigation management, improving water efficiency using various irrigation technologies, creating advanced irrigation scheduling systems, and studying alternative crops for a water-limited environment, like cotton.

“One of the reasons we are looking at cotton is because it is drought resistant, or at least doesn’t need a lot of water compared to other crops grown in southwest Kansas,” said Jonathan Aguilar, a water resources engineer at the Southwest Research-Extension Center.

He said current research indicates that a non-traditional crop like cotton can be grown in Kansas, and it can be profitable.

Mezger said this “out-of-the-box” approach to big issues can lead to successful research solutions.

“One of the most compelling things about the work our scientists are doing is that they are not limiting their work to the lab or even the experimental field,” she said. “K-State researchers are demonstrating the capacity of these technologies on working farms with Kansas farmers. They are also forming partnerships with sociologists to examine the perceptions behind water use in our region, so that we can understand not just the scientific state of the aquifer, but the cultural significance of the Ogallala as well.”

The work of K-State scientists and extension specialists has a positive impact on Kansas residents, according to Metzger. A recent K-State study determined that Kansas producers have a very different view of water use and the Ogallala Aquifer than they did 35 years ago. The study indicated that, today, many producers believe in the importance of conserving groundwater. This is a big step, said Metzger.

“The communities and economy of western Kansas represent the heart of what stands to be gained – or lost – based on how resilient our agricultural industries, infrastructure and supply chains can be to climate and water related risks,” she said.

“Conserving and extending the future of our water resources will require multidisciplinary research and outreach and educating the next generation of water and natural resource professionals. As the state’s land-grant university, K-State is here to meet that need.”

More information on work being done at K-State regarding water conservation and related issues is available online from the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment.