When it comes to saving the Ogallala Aquifer, so vital to life across Eastern Colorado, Western Kansas, and six other Central Plains states, one of the biggest motivators has been preserving it for future generations.
Grace Roth represents that next generation, but she isn’t facing an uncertain future sitting down. She has been active in mobilizing her peers to learn and speak up about water conservation issues.
Roth attends Holcomb High School in Kansas and serves as a district FFA officer. For her Supervised Agricultural Experience, she decided to focus on water advocacy and awareness.
Her project blossomed into the Kansas Youth Water Advocates, which is supported by Kansas State University, the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the state FFA office and other agricultural organizations.
Students are invited to apply to attend a conference where they are introduced to the most up-to-date research and data from resources like the Kansas Water Office, Kansas Geological Survey, K-State and Colorado State University. They also get training on advocacy, outreach, and communication.
“Then we go out in our communities to different businesses, organizations and groups, and we discuss the water issues they are facing, what they can do to help conserve the water and what they can do in their everyday lives to be more sustainable,” she said.
So far 18 students have been through the program, with another conference planned for Manhattan in July.
After attending the recent Ogallala Aquifer Summit, held in Garden City, Roth came away with new ambitions for the project.
“A goal I’ve set for myself is spreading this conference to all eight states (that overlie the aquifer) because the more engagement the better. That’s how we’re going to make a change, is if we work together and take steps together to solve these issues,” she said.
Roth grew up listening to her father, Dwane Roth, share concerns about the dwindling aquifer, a vital underground water source that supplies 112 million acres of the Great Plains with critical irrigation water.
Dwane Roth, who farms with an uncle and two nephews in the Garden City area, has his own story to tell about the importance of water education and why everyone needs to do more to conserve an irreplaceable natural resource.
When the third generation farmer was first approached about using soil moisture probes to monitor irrigation needs on his farm, he had zero interest.
“When one of my landlords asked me if I was doing everything I could to conserve water, I said I was. I thought I was the smartest guy in the room — but I wasn’t,” he recalled during the recent aquifer summit.
After years of farming by gut instinct, relying on soil moisture probes was a revelation.
“The probe told us we were overwatering and pushing the nutrients down too deep in the soil profile,” he said.
He also learned he was watering too early in the season for the roots to get established properly and that his last irrigation application of the season often wasn’t needed.
Farmers tend to irrigate based on what their neighbors are doing, not based on what the actual circumstances are telling them, he said.
“I was that guy,” he said.
By using precision measuring tools, he can manage water better, insuring it is better timed and penetrates deeper. Plants respond favorably. Last year he estimated he was able to save a third of the water he would normally pump while still achieving profits that exceeded those common in the area.
The experiences he’s had since he began dabbling in such technologies has completely turned his attitude around, he said.
Two years ago he agreed to make some of his acreage available for hosting a water technology farm, where research and educational fields days are now conducted. He’s also spearheading efforts to form a LEMA, or Local Enhanced Management Area, through his local groundwater management district, which allows a framework for irrigators to come together to set a voluntary five-year water savings plan that is then enforced by the state water engineer.
Such plans allow farmers to “carry over” water allocations from one year to the next without harming their water rights, providing them with more management flexibility. “We can absolutely do something about this,” he said of declining aquifer levels. “I’m adapting, and that’s what we have to do.”
With that same proactive spirit, his daughter insists that training young people to go back to their home communities to start conversations and share ideas at the local level is the best way to respond to the growing regional water crisis.
“Water affects us all, but it has the biggest impact on agriculture, and that is why I’m so eager to be working on such a challenging problem,” she said during a rousing speech at the recent aquifer summit. “Our hope is that years from now we will have transformed a generation into a culture that demonstrates an understanding of the value of water.”
Together Grace Roth and her dad were honored for their initiatives late last year at the Kansas Water Conference.
While Dwane Roth has given his daughter an appreciation for agriculture and a mission to help sustain it, she has influenced him as well.
“Grace has got me on Twitter now,” he joked.