Mark Shriwise, Ford County Planning, Zoning and Environmental Health director, recently graduated from the Kansas Environmental Leadership Program.
Shriwise was one of sixteen 2012 graduates of the year-long program, sponsored by Kansas State University's Department of Communications and Agricultural Education along with K-State Research and Extension.
"KELP class members come from all walks of life and from all over the state," said Brandi Nelson, KELP coordinator. "We've had private citizens who just want to learn more about water and the environment, as well as farmers, extension agents, university faculty members, representatives of government agencies and utility companies and other professions go through the training. They each bring a unique perspective to the class."
As part of the program, participants explore streams and their inhabitants, visit water and wastewater treatment plants, view aquifer recharge projects and learn about urban storm water management.
Class members divide into four teams to design and implement projects that focus on watershed restoration and protection, public water supplies or conserving and extending the life of the High Plains aquifer.
Shriwise's group chose to promote conservation by working with students in local fourth-grade classes.
The team plans to distribute water conservation forms for students to take home and discuss with parents. The forms ask whether common water conservation practices are being used in the home.
"One of the things they emphasized in the class is that the Ogallala aquifer will only last 40 or 50 more years," Shriwise said.
As the area's main source for water, the Ogallala's future is critical.
"Kansas is and will probably remain an agricultural economy," Shriwise said.
Currently, about 85 percent of the state's water is used for crop irrigation.
To help extend the life of the aquifer, scientists are developing hybrids of milo, corn and grasses to maximize yield and minimize water usage.
"If we can move to drought-resistant hybrids, that will help a lot," Shriwise said.
Water rights are closely regulated. Feed lots, municipalities and other industrial uses are controlled by a permit process.
"We looked at the quality and quantity of our water supply, how to prevent pollution and runoff — but the big emphasis would be conservation and recycling," Shriwise said.
"They told us that the water table has dropped as much in the last ten years as in did in the previous 25 to 40 years," he said.
Over the course of the 10-month KELP program, students toured treatment plants in Hays where volatile organic compounds are being removed from the water supply.
"They had a dry cleaner leak chemicals into the supply so they're cleaning that up. It reaches from north of town down to the old highway 40 and mostly centers on Vine Street," Shriwise said.
They also visited Topeka, attending a legislative session where the Kansas Department of Health and Environment waste department head was testifying.
"We also toured their waste water treatment facility where they treat several million gallons of waste daily and put it back in the river," Shriwise said.
In Wichita, the group participated in a species count and analysis in the river.
"At every session, we had leadership exercises too," Shriwise said.
The group also attended the governor's water conference.
As for the situation is Ford County, Shriwise says that the city generally stays a mile or more away from the Arkansas riverbed for water wells.
"The underflow of the Arkansas River is nasty water. It's high in calcium, magnesium and nitrates. It's not good for drinking water. That water is heavily used for irrigation southwest of town and I doubt if the underflow even reaches the town of Ford," Shriwise said.
"The bottom line is — we're gonna have to buckle down and do more conservation and recycling. We're gonna need to plant drought-resistant varieties and use better techniques. And maybe we'll get some help from the Almighty up above with a little rain."