Missouri River Aqueduct is a Kansas Pipe Dream

States throughout the West face depleting water resources and no source epitomizes this reality more than the rapidly depleting groundwater levels in the Ogallala Aquifer. Appropriation of the aquifer during the early-to-mid twentieth century has taken a drastic toll on the water source in western Kansas where irrigators rely on groundwater due to a lack of significant annual rainfall. Officials in Kansas have been aware of the rapid depletion for decades, and in 1982 the Kansas Water Office and the Army Corps of Engineers published a feasibility report for a 360-mile aqueduct from the Missouri River in Northeast Kansas to a reservoir in Southwest Kansas. Officials believed that an aqueduct could serve as a replacement for the depleted aquifer. The report predicted the cost of building the aqueduct to exceed $4 billion with an annual maintenance cost of nearly $500 million. High costs and other factors made the project little more than a fantasy in 1982, but in January 2015 the Army Corps of Engineers and the Kansas Water Office released an updated feasibility report. The updated report has prompted significant debate about how to solve the problem of declining water levels in Western Kansas. The report initiated a discussion among officials in Kansas and states throughout the Missouri River Basin about whether a project of this scale represents a necessary approach to water management in the Midwest or indicates that policymakers are avoiding decades of inefficient management practices. The problem arose out of misguided theories about beneficial use and wasteful agricultural practices, and the solution exists in reformation of the current and future management practices that prioritize efficiency, sustainability, and conservation.

Current and Future Demand for Groundwater

Kansas has long been known as the “Breadbasket of the World” as a result of a climate conducive to wheat production and a significant agricultural labor force. In 1888, the Topeka Capital-Journal acknowledged Kansas’s wheat producing capabilities when it claimed, “In wheat, Kansas can beat the world.” Despite improving irrigation technologies, the updated aqueduct report notes that irrigation makes up 85 percent of water use in Kansas. Policy makers at the state and federal levels utilized the Irrigation Water Conservation Fund and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to incentivize a shift from flood irrigation technology, relying on small trenches to provide crops with nourishment but wasting water due to runoff, to center pivot irrigation, which provides water to crops via large sprinklers. Increased corn and sorguhm production is one major reason for the sustained levels of water use because these crops require intensive amounts of water. In 2012 wheat still accounted for 40 percent of all acres cultivated in Kansas, but since the 1980s corn production in the state has increased significantly, making up 20 percent of acres planted in 2012.

Irrigation in western Kansas is depleting groundwater levels at a rate six times faster than the aquifer’s recharge rates. The updated aqueduct study utilized a Kansas Geological Survey tool to demonstrate the amount of time it will take for the aquifer to have levels too low to support current irrigation practices and the quantity of water required from the proposed aqueduct to replace the depleted groundwater. The report notes that the quantity of water needed to replace current irrigation demand in five years is 354,420 acre-feet; 528,731 acre-feet in ten years; 1,00,433 acre-feet in twenty five years; 1,862,620 acre-feet in fifty years; and 2,657,808 acre-feet in 100 years.

Current Policy Approach

With such quickly depleting groundwater sources, officials in Kansas, like many other states, need to reconsider their approach to water management. As Stanford affiliated scholar, Burke Griggs, noted in Lessons from Kansas: A more Sustainable Groundwater Management Approach, Kansas seemingly has a policy framework that creates channels for conservation. In 1945, the state legislature enacted the Kansas Water Appropriation Act. The Act transitioned Kansas from a riparian-based system for allocating water rights to a prior appropriation system, or “first in time, first in right.” The Act provides the state with administrative tools for responsible allocation of water resources, such as granting the Chief Engineer the authority to approve or reject applications for water rights.

Furthermore, the Groundwater Management District Act was enacted in 1978 in an attempt to provide for more localized management of groundwater resources. First, the Act outlined the means by which water right holders in a given region may initiate proceedings to create a Groundwater Management District, whereby water right holders play a role in the development of regional water policy. The act also outlined the means by which the Chief Engineer and/or water right holders utilizing mostly groundwater sources for irrigation can initiate proceedings for the creation of Intensive Groundwater Use and Control Areas (“IGUCAs”). The process involves a more localized approach to implementation of corrective measures addressing the over appropriation of water rights. For example, if the chief engineer or the water right holders determine that the water problems in the region warrant enhanced management, the IGUCA may close the area to any future appropriation and require increased conservation measures. There are currently nine IGUCAs throughout Kansas: (1) McPherson, (2) Burrton, (3) Pawnee Valley, (4) Pawnee-Buckner-Sawlog, (5) Lower Smoky Hill River, (6) Upper Smoky Hill River, (7) Arkansas River Valley, (8) Hays, and (9) Walnut Creek.

Professor Griggs identified some of the possible reasons for the ineffectiveness of current legal, administrative, and policy solutions in Kansas. First, Professor Griggs noted that part of the issue stems from the original administration of the prior appropriation doctrine. During the first few decades of the state’s adoption of the doctrine, state officials over-appropriated groundwater resources. Though officials became more cognizant of over-appropriation, they continued appropriating water to satisfy the rise of corn and soybean cultivation. This resulted in more allocated rights than water to satisfy the rights. Second, Professor Griggs discussed the inability for the Chief Engineer to effectively deal with the over-appropriation problem because water right owners are not actually committing violations. Any efforts by the Chief Engineer to regulate the resource granted to current right holders may also lead to undesirable legal and political outcomes, including retaliation from the state’s irrigators. Finally, Professor Griggs noted that Kansas’s groundwater irrigators also have not attempted to protect their senior rights over the junior right holders. Impairment investigations are a tool by which a senior right holder can request that Kansas Division of Water Resources officials inspect the circumstances hindering the senior right holder’s access to their fully allocated amount. Senior water right holders are reluctant to initiate impairment investigations due to their concern about findings leading to increased corrective controls and further restrictions on their own ability to use the water. All of these issues have led to largely ineffective control of water right holders and their use of the rapidly depleting resource. Officials now must consider alternative solutions such as those proposed by the updated aqueduct study.

At approximately the same time the Kansas Water Office released the updated aqueduct study and also released the 50-year vision for water in Kansas called, “A Long Term Vision for the Future of Water Supply in Kansas.” The plan included a number of policy considerations and a framework for the sustainability of Kansas’ water supply. Officials in charge of developing the vision sought to incorporate localized solutions, while trying to avoid regulations or mandates, and instead implement voluntary, incentive-based conservation and management schemes.

The Aqueduct

The proposed study accepted by the Kansas Water Office includes an extensive discussion about options for the construction of the aqueduct, which would be a 360-mile concrete canal. The plan calls for a source reservoir in northeast Kansas with a storage capacity of 700,000 acre-feet (228 billion gallons), as well as a terminal reservoir located in western Kansas storing water for use by irrigators. The terminal reservoir would have a storage capacity of nearly 1.6 million acre-feet (517 billion gallons). Fifteen pumping stations along the canal would allow for a flow capacity of 6,830 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs). The 1982 plan proposed a lock and dam diversion structure across the Missouri River. Lock and dam structures allow for diversion of water while also allowing barge traffic to pass from lower water elevation to upstream water elevations. However, along with proposing the same lock and dam diversion method, the 2015 study also proposes horizontal collector wells (“HWC”) as an alternative to the lock and dam approach. HWCs supply water to pump stations by infiltrating water from the river source through a water pump extending to the desired depth.

The water transfer system size is determinative of the project cost. Project costs for a 2,000 cfs, lock and dam transfer system are expected to be approximately $8 billion. The total cost rises to approximately $18 billion for a 6,000 cfs system. With a 10,000 cfs system, the study predicts a $28 billion total cost.

Reaction to the Study

Residents of Kansas have mixed reactions. Many Kansans voiced their concerns about the multibillion-dollar price tag, while some Kansans contemplated the idea as a plausible solution to a problem that threatens the state’s long-term economic vitality. Opposition to the plan arises from a variety of sources. For one, residents of northeast Kansas are concerned about the swath of quality farmland that would be submerged in the capture reservoir near White Cloud. State water officials are also questioning the idea and Kansas Water Office Director, Tracy Streeter, stated, “I don’t think this concept is the way forward.”

The plan also has its supporters in the state. Farmers throughout the western portion of the state are inevitably concerned about their livelihood, as well as the livelihood of future generations of Kansas farmers. Supporters of the plan contend that the aqueduct would simply supply the parched western portion of Kansas with other regions’ excess water. For example, supporters look to 2011 when Kansas faced a drought and parts of the Missouri River Basin suffered substantial flooding.

Missouri residents and officials had a significant, negative reaction to the release of the updated study. Recognizing the vital importance of the Missouri River to its economic well-being, Missouri officials were quick to criticize Kansas Officals and the release of the study. Missouri Governor, Jay Nixon, even acknowledged the proposal in his January State of the State address in which he called the aqueduct a “hare-brained idea” and stated that Missouri could not let the project move forward. Missouri newspapers wrote articles and published editorials about the outlandishness of the idea and maintain that the only feasible approach to Kansas’ water problems is conservation and drought resistant crops.

Future Action

The solution to Kansas’ groundwater problems does not exist in the updated Kansas aqueduct plan. Years of over appropriation of water resources and a century of Army Corps of Engineers engineering projects should be a lesson to current and future water management officials. The answer does not exist in engineering projects that allow water users to continue using water at current rates like the Kansas aqueduct project. Rather, state officials, water right holders, researchers, and other interests must work together to identify methods for slowing down the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer and allow the Missouri River to flow in the future the same way that it flows today.

Enhanced use of IGUCAs is a possible means of establishing more widespread water management practices. IGUCA stakeholders are able to satisfy many local interests when developing management practices, whereas statewide regulations might not consider the factors present on a regional basis. Providing irrigators with a say in groundwater management practices is important for buy-in and success of management program.

State officials must utlitize to the fullest extent the legal and administrative framework that already exists and work to establish innovative conservation initiatives. The ideas outlined in “A Long Term Vision for the Future of Water Supply in Kansas” represent a more reasonable and long-term solution to the depleting Ogallala Aquifer. For the state of Kansas to maintain its status as a world leader in agriculture, officials must recognize the opportunity to pave the way for thoughtful and innovative answers to the problem of high demand for a small supply of water resources. The state of Kansas depends upon finding a reasonable solution to maintain its economic vitality and a high quality of life for its residents, but a 360-mile aqueduct will only act as a temporary solution to the more systematic problem of over consumption of the nation’s water resources.

The title image features a pivot irrigation system in Kansas. This image was created by an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture and as such is part of the public domain.



Associated Press, Kansas Leads Nation in Wheat, Sorghum Crops, The Topeka Capital-Journal (June 11, 2014), http://cjonline.com/news/2014-06-11/kansas-leads-nation-wheat-sorghum-crops.

Burke Griggs, Lessons from Kansas: A More Sustainable Groundwater Management Approach, The Bill Lane Center for the American West (Mar. 4, 2015), http://waterinthewest.stanford.edu/resources/forum/lessons-kansas-more-sustainable-groundwater-management-approach.

Kansas Water Office & U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Update of 1982 Six State High Plains Aquifer Study (Mar. 12, 2015), available at http://www.kwo.org/projects_programs/Aqueduct/Rpt_Aqueduct_Study_Update_012715_kf.pdf.

Lisa Pfeiffer and C.Y. Cynthia Lin, The Effect of Irrigation Technology on Groundwater Use, Choices The Magazine of Food, Farm and Resource Issues, March 2010.

Peyton Fleming, Corn Farming in the Midwest Heavily Taxes Water Resources and Supply, The Guardian (June 23, 2014), http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/jun/23/corn-farming-midwest-water-pollution-nitrates-scarcity.

Tim Carpenter, Mo. Gov. Vows to Fight Aqueduct Idea, Kansas Agland (Jan. 22, 2015), http://www.kansasagland.com/news/local_state_news/mo-gov-vows-to-fight-harebrained-aqueduct-idea/article_c59ffe37-9bc6-5beb-b299-a4ee0ea3c5a1.html.

Kansas Water Office, A Long Term Vision for the Future of Water Supply in Kansas (Mar. 12, 2015), available at http://www.kwo.org/50_Year_Vision/rpt_Kansas_Water_Vision_%20Final_%20Draft_%20012815.pdf