How do you get citizens from rural and urban areas working together for clean water? You come up with a way to reward farmers and ranchers for doing the right thing. That’s exactly what the Cheney Lake Watershed has been doing around Wichita, Kan. for more than two decades. Projects like these will increase as water resources become increasingly scarce. I have met many farmers in Kansas who have literally ran out of water. Water woes will be a story that all of us will face in the future because there are water shortages happening across the state, neighboring states, the nation and globally. Because of that, even areas that have more water than others, will feel the pressure from a growing population that will need water from other areas.
According to Howard Miller – watershed outreach coordinator, the Cheney Lake Watershed (North Fork Ninnescah River) covers 633,000 acres within five counties in south central Kansas including portions of Reno, Stafford, Pratt, Kingman, and Kiowa. More than 99 percent of the watershed is used for agricultural purposes. The Cheney Reservoir was formed back in the mid-1960s when the Bureau of Reclamation built a dam in cooperation with the City of Wichita, making the reservoir an important source of drinking water and recreation for the City of Wichita and surrounding communities.
“About 70 percent of the drinking water comes from Cheney Lake and the rest from groundwater. There are about 425,000 people in Wichita, close to a half million people are using water in that system,” he said.
“Back in the early 1990s, there were blue/green algae blooms from too much phosphorous and sediment run-off showing up in the Wichita water supply. In Kansas, every county is set up to have United States Department of Agriculture USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices. Along with those, are local organizations in every county called conservation districts that are managed by boards. Some of those board members started to become concerned about the sediment and other run-off in the lake. They began to talk about developing the watershed effort. Wichita was a willing partner and has remained a good partner from the beginning.”
“The biggest thing we have seen to this day is a shift from conventional tillage to no-till and then to cover crops,” Miller explained. “No-till alone is not enough to control erosion because there is still too much bare soil for too much of the year. We need to keep all that bare soil covered with cover crops.”
“The watershed has a group of farmers that meet for lunch to talk about cover crops in a peer-to-peer format,” Miller added. “They call themselves ‘Rye Growers Anonymous.’ We think it’s best for farmers to learn from other farmers. Farmers are also more apt to change if other farmers they know are changing.”
“We couldn’t just stick our heads in the sand,” said Sig Collins, a rancher who has been on the Citizens Management Committee since its fruition in 1994. “We knew we had to do something. The partnership with Wichita was a good opportunity to work on it together. There are more people in Wichita than in the watershed. If we worked on it voluntarily, we could do it on our own terms, not theirs.”
Improving farm and ranch economics, while improving the environment, are becoming increasingly central to watershed efforts, Miller reiterated, “With soil health and cover crops, farmers can do something good for their own pocketbooks too. I wish I would have known these things as a farmer. It’s about trying to mimic what the good Lord already knew, a diversity of species is a good thing, no different than the native prairie.”
“We’ve also seen people convert entire fields and put acres that had grain under pivots placed entirely into grass for cattle,” said Lisa French, watershed project coordinator. “With that, they are using fewer inputs as far as chemicals and fertilizers too. Wichita pays $100/acre one time as an incentive payment for people to make those changes if they do so for at least 10 years. A big part of the success of the watershed is the idea that farmers are being proactive about what they need to do to care for downstream neighbors. It’s also economic development in a much broader sense. Our watershed project is geared towards water quality for Wichita and how we can make our community and farms more resilient. If we continue to grow that footprint, we will be a success.” Learn more at: www.cheneylakewatershed.org