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25th November 2023
...continued from PART 1


In Kansas, the power of the men who run Groundwater Management District 3 is enormous. Even though the district is in the driest part of Kansas, with an aquifer in dramatic decline, it accounts for half of all groundwater extracted statewide.

Pressure is rising for change. State officials and experts want farmers and other users to pump less, noting that other districts have reduced water use through more efficient irrigation techniques and new technology. So far, the leaders of District 3 have refused.

Many of the landowners eligible to vote in district elections live elsewhere, renting out their farms but retaining control over water policy, said Lucas Bessire, an anthropology professor at the University of Oklahoma who wrote a book, “Running Out,” about the depletion of the aquifer beneath southwest Kansas.

Lindsay Vaughn, the 29-year-old state lawmaker who is leading efforts to tighten groundwater regulations, comes at the problem with the perspective of someone who could see the aquifer run dry in her lifetime.

“If we don’t do anything differently, then there won’t be enough water left for people in my generation,” said Ms. Vaughn, who represents a Kansas City suburb.

Last year, Ms. Vaughn, the top Democrat on the state’s water committee, tried to open elections for groundwater management districts to all local residents, part of a broader package of reforms.

Her proposal was blocked by Mr. Newland, a Republican lawmaker at the time, who raises crops and cattle. Soon after, Mr. Newland became president of the Kansas Farm Bureau, the lobbying powerhouse for agriculture.

In an interview, Mr. Newland said that people who live in towns and cities don’t understand the value of groundwater to farming and would elect members to the district board who would cut water use. That would decrease the value of farmland, he said.

Mark Rude, the water district’s executive director, defended restricting control of groundwater to large landowners. “It works pretty darn good for people that are invested in the land,” he said.

This year, Ms. Vaughn introduced new legislation that requires the state to ensure that water districts better protect their aquifers. Groups like Groundwater Management District 3 have until 2026 to come up with plans to sustain groundwater. If they fail to develop those plans, or if state officials decide the plans are inadequate, the state can impose its own plan and compel farmers to cut back on pumping.

That bill became law, evidence of the growing recognition that Kansas faces a crisis, Ms. Vaughn said. But she voiced concern about whether political appointees in state government will enforce the law, given the clout of the agriculture lobby.

“We can come together and use the tools that we already have to slow depletion,” Ms. Vaughn said. “Or we can be left in the dust. The choice is ours.”


In much of the country, groundwater is being withdrawn faster than it can be replaced, a problem that states are struggling to address. And, as a New York Times investigation this summer found, the result has been declining water levels in nearly half the sites for which data is available.

The federal government plays no role in regulating groundwater extraction, leaving that to individual states, but a growing number of advocates and experts say Washington must intervene to protect the country’s depleting aquifers.

Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University, said the federal government should set minimum requirements for groundwater conservation, then step in when states fail to enforce those requirements, much like the Environmental Protection Agency’s approach to drinking water quality.

“The way we’ve been doing business cannot go on,” Dr. Lall said.

Ali Zaidi, the national climate adviser to President Biden, declined to directly say whether the federal government should take on groundwater supply.

The reluctance to talk about groundwater regulation isn’t surprising, according to Representative Jared Huffman, Democrat of California, a former attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and onetime director of the Marin Municipal Water District.

“They regard this as a hot stove they don’t want to touch,” said Mr. Huffman, the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries.

That’s because many Americans view the water under their land as “this domain of individual liberty, that nobody wants the federal government, or even the states, to have authority over,” he said in an interview.

“It just has to get really bad,” Mr. Huffman added, “before something like that happens.”

PS - If you go to the website there are pictures and graphs and at the end are another 7 articles in the series. THESE are cautionary tales for all of us!