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Troubled Ogallala Aquifer focus of summit

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- When Rodger Funk first started farming in parched western Kansas, the conventional wisdom a half-century ago was that the water growers were pumping to irrigate their crops came from an underground river and that it was inexhaustible. He remembers hearing that over and over again from his neighbors.

They were wrong.

It was not until the late 1950s when Funk and his farming neighbors in Garden City attended a community meeting called by some geological researchers who had been studying the Ogallala Aquifer that he realized it.

"They announced the water was finite. It was geological water that had been put down a long time ago and when it was gone, it was gone," Funk recalled. "That was total news. None of us in the room I think expected that, but it started changing my life. I realized that we were not going to be pumping this water for ever and ever."

When his son, Boyd, finished college and came back to the farm, the family decided that if they were going to stay in agriculture they would need to learn dryland farming.

So the Funks started buying dryland fields rather than irrigated land. They would need the production from those additional dryland acres to make up for lost yields from ground they would not irrigate. They plugged nearly exhausted wells on irrigated land they bought. They stopped growing thirsty crops like alfalfa and corn and instead planted more drought-hardy things like wheat and milo. They quit tilling the land to conserve soil moisture.

Funk, now 83, may well be the face of the future for the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas.

Today, farmers and other water users are gathering in Colby in northwest Kansas for an economic summit on the aquifer's future.

The High Plains Aquifer, more commonly known as the Ogallala Aquifer, underlies some 174,000 square miles in parts of eight states. It includes portions of South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. Its saturated thickness varies and now ranges from more than 300 feet to fewer than 50 feet in places.

The focus at the economic summit hosted by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback will be on how to extend the life of an aquifer that would be a major economic issue for the state if lost. Roughly 94 percent of the groundwater is used for irrigation, which supports livestock, meatpacking, ethanol and other agricultural industries in Kansas.