Kent Dunn and his sons spend their days preparing for harvest in Finney County, Kansas. Their farm grows thousands of acres of corn for local cattle feedlots, soybeans, cotton and milo.
But their farm, like every other in the county, is struggling to conserve the one thing in short supply: water.
“If we don’t conserve the aquifer, it’ll be something that just disappears,” said Kent Dunn, of 4D Farms.
All the fields across the region pump water from deep in the ground out of a natural source called the Ogallala Aquifer.
“Through time, the water seeped into the aquifer, and it’s not replenishing like that today,” said Dunn. “They’re talking an inch or two a year replenishment, and we’re pumping 18-24 inches per acre out today, and it’s just not sustainable at that rate,” Dunn said of the groundwater.
In an effort to save water, the Dunns have stopped growing as much corn and have started growing more crops like milo, which are much more drought-tolerant plants.
They’re working with other farmers to extend the like of the Ogallala. It’s 174,000 square miles of fresh water underground that stretches from South Dakota all the way to northwest Texas. It supplies the water for one-quarter of all the irrigated crops in the United States. For 4 out of 5 people living above the aquifer, that’s their drinking water.
“It is a finite resource, and to me, it’s not a race to the bottom,” said Dunn.
That’s why he and other farmers are growing different crops that require less water, using more efficient sprinklers and only pumping from the aquifer if they have to.
“We pay attention to the rain,” said Dunn. “If we get an inch and a half, two inches of rain, we’re happy to shut them off,” Dunn said of the pumps on his farm.
On a larger scale, the county is looking to find a long-term solution to replenish the aquifer for generations to come.
“Water is needed to keep food prices down, to keep quality up and meet market demands across the globe, so it’s really a key concern for everyone,” said Mark Rude, the executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District.
Rude drove almost 400 miles to fill a truck with floodwater from the Missouri River to dump into the dry riverbed in Finney County. Rude said he knows trucking water is not economical for what they need, but he said it is a proof of concept that excessive floodwater from other regions could help save the Ogallala.
“We released the water, it went tens of feet downriver, but very quickly, soaked in, in about 10 minutes, 6,000 gallons,” said Rude of how dry the ground is in this part of Kansas.
Rude is hoping a pipeline or aqueduct system is built. He said the county is even looking into shipping by rail.
“We have to start with a few steps,” said Rude.
Something must be done now to save the farms, the crops, and the livelihoods of tomorrow.
“If we don’t pay attention to it today and we don’t take care of it, it will be gone, and it’ll be like an extinct animal you can’t bring it back,” said Dunn.