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Unusual partnerships may be necessary to bring some semblance of order to what could turn into contentious battles over water allocations across the country, and particularly in the arid west.
The water issues panel, from left: Marco Ugarte, Miller Coors; Gary Beck, Hillside Ranch; Mitchell Baalman, FDK Partnership; and moderator Frank Sesno, The George Washington University.
The gum in the works for both Baalman and Beck was to determine how to conserve water and still maintain profitable production levels. In each case, partnerships and compromise played deciding roles.
“We had to go through the political system,” Baalman said. “But we got farmers involved.” They devised a voluntary conservation program, with oversight rom the Kansas Division of Water Resources. “The key was we had too many wells pumping too much water,” he said.
Farmers who volunteered now limit water use to 55 inches over a five-year period, averaging 11 inches per year. “We’ve just finished our first year and have about 20 percent of our farmers involved. We need many more but we understand that some will never change.
“But the restriction has made us better producers. We’re using technology, including GMO crops, to increase efficiency. We’re also using data better.”
Baalman said improved efficiency is the key to making water conservation work. “We went to pivots from flood irrigation. We were putting too much water into the rivers.”
Beck and Ugarte worked through the Nature Conservancy to create water-savings programs for Hillside Ranch. “Beck got a $140,000 grant from the Nature Conservancy to rework irrigation systems. “That did not cover all costs,” Beck said. “Total was about $250,000.”
“It’s an unusual partnership,” he said. “We don’t always agree and environmentalists are not always viewed as friends of agriculture. But we have to be smart.”
He said part of the agreement with the Nature Conservancy is sharing information. “The biggest challenge is communication,” he said. “Now, we sponsor field days and have schools and science teachers visit on sustainability field trips.”
He said neighboring farmers were skeptical. “They thought the effort would be a flop. We owe a lot to the Nature Conservancy.”
The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends, according the organization’s website.
“We have to be willing to understand collectively how to advance together,” Ugarte said. “Partners, including business, farmers and others are important and together we can tell the story of success and help understand resource management.”
Change, they agree, is inevitable. “We have to be willing to change,” Baalman said. “If we don’t change, we will get left out.”