Running Dry | What's Threatening Our Water Supply

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Whether it's drinking, washing hands or taking care of the lawn and garden, most people use water dozens of times every day without a second thought.

Most people know they shouldn't waste water, but the day when citizens cannot simply turn on the faucet at will and be greeted by a flowing stream is not some intangible point in the future. State officials say it is potentially within many people's lifetimes.

"If we do nothing, at best, in the next 50 years, we won't have sufficient supply to meet demand," said Susan Metzger, chief of planning and policy for the Kansas Water Office.

Forming a Vision
Metzer is among a team leading the way in developing a 50-year vision plan for the future of water in Kansas. She says the state has long developed shorter-term, five-year plans on water issues. The idea for the Vision Plan, she says, was to look into the future and identify what must be done to ensure a sufficient water supply to maintain and grow the Kansas economy.

"What's necessary is making sure we target resources and cost-share programs to the right places, where it can have the most significant impact," Metzger said.

The first draft of the Water Vision Plan was released this summer. It states that, if a major drought situation should occur, with the current state of water resources and infrastructure, public water supplies could be impacted as early as the year 2066.

"Every ounce of water directly supports our Kansas economy and citizens," Metzger said. "Everybody should care about it."

Raiding the Reservoirs
The vision report traces many of the major issues facing the water supply in northeast Kansas to the state's reservoirs, like Perry and Tuttle Creek.

Among the functions of the reservoirs is to store water for use in times of drought. But since they opened in the 1960s, as happens in nature, the streams and rivers that feed the lakes have carried the sediment from their banks along with the water. When it gets to the lakes, the sediment drops.

Decades later, it is adding up. Lake Perry, for example has lost 18 percent of its storage capacity. Tuttle Creek has lost 40 percent. Looking north from the K-92 bridge at Ozawkie, a large island of trees and grass stands in what used to be open water. At the north end of Tuttle Creek, the Randolph Bridge now spans a wetland mix of trees, grasses and sandy silt instead of the glistening lake waters that once filled the area.

Brian McNulty, the lake manager at Tuttle Creek Reservoir for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, says the lake has lost 5,000 surface acres.

"As time goes on, water supply demands go up but the volume of the lake is going down because of sedimentation," he said. "That's math that doesn't add up."

It's especially concerning for communities downstream, such as Junction City, Manhattan and Topeka, which rely on the storage the reservoirs provide.

Don Rankin, utilities superintendent for the City of Topeka, says, as recently as 2012, the city had to request a release of water stores to maintain the necessary flow for Topeka's water customers. If not for the water in the reservoirs, he said, people would be dealing with water restrictions.

Ripple Effect
It doesn't just threaten water supply. A major source of tourism dollars flows from the reservoirs.

The Corps estimated that, in 2010, Kansas reservoirs pumped more than $202 million into the Kansas economy. Nearly $35 million of that amount came from Perry and Tuttle alone.

Tuila Rumold, who manages Rock Creek Marina at Lake Perry with her husband, Allen, says the Corps does a good job of managing the lake in a way that is not detrimental to business. She says it's clear the public values the resources the reservoirs provide close to home.

"People buy this. They like this. They spend a lot of money to be here," Rumold said. "If we didn't have the lake, they'd travel further to find a lake."

The draft of the Water Vision Plan acknowledges the recreation interests as it wades into finding solutions. In fact, a 2009 report from the Kansas Water Office and Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism went so far as to say "demand for water-based recreation exceeds present availability."

"Not An Option"
The issues building up in the reservoirs were foreseen. When built, engineers estimated the reservoirs had a 50 to 100 year lifespan.

It's a time that has come, but a prediction, experts say, that does not have to come to fruition.

"Accepting the 50-year lifespan is not an option," Metzger said. "This is now. There are things in the Vision we can do today, in the next 30 days, as well as long-term solutions, (but) we really don't have the luxury of waiting another day."

The Ogallala Equation
The issues and solutions are very different for western Kansas. It gets its water from the Ogallala Aquifer, a shallow water table beneath the surface.

With decades of drought, water from the Ogallala is being used more quickly than it can be restored. A recent Kansas State University study found that, with present irrigation rates, 69 percent of the Ogallala will be gone in 50 years. Farming would peak in the year 2040, then decline.

Metzger says some areas served by the Ogallala could see insufficient supplies even earlier, within the next 10 to 15 years.

Farmers and ranchers already are taking steps to conserve and working with state partners on future solutions.

"There is a very difficult and fundamental issue to wrestle with of how quickly do we utilize the resource knowing that the ultimate outcome is likely the same regardless of the rate with which we get there," said Kent Askren, Kansas Farm Bureau's public policy director for water. "A tremendous economy has been built upon the use of Ogallala water which benefits all Kansans. Whatever the vision ultimately is for the Ogallala, every Kansan will benefit from or suffer the consequences of that vision. Our current policy directs us to focus on local decisions that respect private property rights."

Further information on an Ogallala Aquifer Initiative by the Natural Resources Conservation Service can be found at this link. A September 2013 article on issues facing the Ogallala from the Washington Post can be found here.

Still to come: Slowing Sedimentation - What's being done to keep the extend the lives of the reservoirs and the price tag attached