Farmers in the Walnut Creek basin have faced strict restrictions on how much they can water their crops since the early 1990s. Those limits have pushed them to change their methods and their mindsets.
HAYS, Kansas — Trying to cut back on irrigation in western Kansas isn’t a new idea.
More than three decades ago, the state came to farmers in the Walnut Creek basin south of Hays with a mandate. Farmers had to drastically change how much water they used on their crops. Some had to cut irrigation by nearly half.
Roger Mohr, who has grown grain in that area since 1970, remembers the irrigation limits didn’t go over well — at least at first.
“None of us liked that when it happened,” Mohr said. “But we all realized that we had to make changes.”
A new study from Kansas State University shows how farmers in this part of west-central Kansas have made those changes to meet the state’s strict irrigation restrictions since they began in 1992.
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The research focuses on the Walnut Creek Intensive Groundwater Use Control Area, or IGUCA, which spans part of the creek’s basin in Ness, Rush and Barton counties.
Prior to the IGUCA’s restrictions, Mohr said, nearly all of the irrigation in his area came from inundating fields with long trenches of water that ran between the crop rows — a method that’s notorious for losing water to evaporation and runoff. Now, pretty much every piece of land that can field a more-efficient center pivot irrigation system has one.
The water limits spurred farmers to make other changes, too. They’ve switched up what they grow, Mohr said, from mostly irrigated corn — which requires a lot of water — to a rotation that includes other crops, such as soybeans and sorghum. Some of his neighbors have gone beyond center pivots and installed subsurface drip irrigation systems that conserve even more water.
Those changes have meant some big upfront expenses for farmers. But in Mohr’s view, it’s been worth it.
“We have to be very careful,” Mohr said, “because without water, none of us are going to be here.”