NRCS Awards $1.4 Million to Support Local Water Sustainability Project

A new enterprise to address declining aquifer levels will soon be available in Wichita and Greeley counties.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is investing $1.4 million in a partner-driven Groundwater Recharge and Sustainability Project (GRASP) to support local communities through its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The project has an additional $1.5 million in partner contributions.

“Water drives western Kansas’ economy. Residents, businesses, agriculture, and communities need access to clean, abundant sources of water to survive and thrive,” said Christy Hopkins, director of Greeley County Community Development.  “As we look for ways to preserve our community and grow in the future, ensuring access to a safe, stable, and secure water supply is critically important.”

This RCPP project will help landowners voluntarily restore playas near municipal and domestic wells, improve irrigation efficiency, reduce pumping, retire wells, and transition to dryland cropping systems. It is designed to support existing water conservation efforts such as the Wichita County Water Conservation Area (WCA) management plan and the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Water Transition Assistance Program (WTAP), as well as the proposed Wichita County Local Enhanced Management Area (LEMA).

“We are excited that this project was selected for funding,” said Troy J. Munsch, Kansas NRCS Acting State Conservationist. “The Ogallala Aquifer is a critical resource in this region, and we have a long and successful relationship with many of the partners involved in this project.”

A diverse group of organizations and individuals have come together to proactively address a declining municipal water supply by restoring their part of the Ogallala Aquifer.

“The Kansas Association of Conservation Districts (KACD), along with the Wichita and Greeley County Conservation Districts, strongly support this RCPP, and are one of the major partners, because it will help conserve water, create wildlife habitat, help stop erosion, and help to sustain a water supply for future generations,” said Bill Simshauser, KACD executive board member.

According to Simshauser, the RCPP practices will help producers and landowners get conservation on the ground that will help save water and help recharge the Ogallala Aquifer.

“All these practices in combination — restoring playa lakes, reducing irrigation water usage, and retiring irrigation water rights — will help to sustain the local water supply,” he said.

Playas are the most numerous wetlands in the region, with more than 80,000 scattered across the western Great Plains. Based on the best available data, there are approximately 2,690 acres of playas in Wichita County and 2,364 acres in Greeley County.

“Playas are an important part of a sustainable approach to securing water for communities in Kansas,” said Matt Smith, Conservation Delivery Specialist at Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) and co-author of the RCPP proposal. “These temporary wetlands are a primary source of recharge for the Ogallala Aquifer, contributing up to 95 percent of water flowing to the aquifer — and improving the quality of that water.”

By restoring and protecting playas near municipal and domestic water wells, recharge will be supported where it is needed most. Horizontal flow rates within the aquifer are extremely slow (1/2-1 mile per 10 years or slower), so the water is functionally compartmentalized in a given area.

“This RCPP builds on the groundwork laid by our Wichita County WCA in 2016 and will improve the sustainability of our operations for years to come,” said Tammy Simons, one of the producers participating in the WCA. “The sustainability of the Ogallala Aquifer, right under our family’s fourth generation farm, has historically been dubbed a tragedy of the commons; however, what began five years ago as piecemeal approaches to water recharge and conservation has now morphed into a phenomenal project that will have a lasting impact for the common good.”

The benefits provided by playas go beyond simple recharge.

“Playas not only help recharge the aquifer and provide cleaner water through natural filtration processes, they also provide habitat for wildlife, create an environment for recreational activities for locals and tourists alike, and are living laboratories that provide excellent educational and research opportunities for local students,” Hopkins said.

“We all know communities will not survive without water,” Simshauser said. “And the way to ensure a viable water supply is through conservation. This RCPP is unique in that it brought together a diverse group of like-minded partners — conservation organizations and agencies, landowners and producers, county, community, and municipal authorities — who are all concerned over the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer and want to help create a sustainable water supply for our communities.”

The group of partners for the project includes the City of Leoti, Ducks Unlimited, Greeley County Community Development, Greeley County Conservation District, Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, Kansas Association of Conservation Districts, Kansas Department of Agriculture, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, Kansas Livestock Association, Kansas Water Office, Leoti-Wichita County Future Farmers of America Chapter, Pheasants Forever, Playa Lakes Joint Venture, Unified Greeley County, Wichita County Commission, Wichita County Conservation District, Wichita County Health Center and Wichita County Water Conservation Area.

For additional information about playas and the benefits they provide, visit PlayasWorkForKansas.com. For questions about the GRASP, contact Dan Meyerhoff with Kansas Association of Conservation Districts at 785-650-1330 or Matt Smith with Playa Lakes Joint Venture at 785-420-7000.

Posted: April 20, 2020