Cookies, cereal, marshmallows, whipped cream, chocolate syrup, milk and ice cream can create a fun lesson—and a tasty snack—to model the rock, soil and liquid layers of an aquifer.

Many times hands-on activities provide the best way to learn. More than 600 fourth-grade students build model aquifers each January in Salina, Kansas, as part of the Salina Water Festival. Other educational stations, which focus on lessons such as kitchen chemistry, water safety and the water cycle, call to mind the importance of the natural resource in Kansas and beyond.

For more than 10 years, extension agents in K-State Research and Extension’s Central Kansas District have taught children how to be wise stewards of water through the Salina Water Festival. Anthony Ruiz, livestock production agent for the district, said having the opportunity to teach the science of water using ice cream is a win-win.

“Students win with their new knowledge of how to be good citizens for their ecosystem, and everyone else wins with a healthy world to live in and grow,” Ruiz said.

Glenn Engelland serves on the Central Kansas District’s extension board and is a veterinarian in Salina. He said although adults should know the realities of water issues in Kansas, education always does the most good when you start with children.

“Tell kids this is how we recharge aquifers, and this is how we handle wastewater,” Engelland said. “Then they can start forming their own opinions and having those discussions with their parents.”

Engelland was one of about 1,200 attendees who participated in recent water meetings hosted by the Kansas Water Office in March. The Salina meeting he attended was one of 26 hosted across the state. The meetings sought public input on the Kansas water supply, by region, and also involved the Kansas Department of Agriculture and K-State Research and Extension.

Education on regional issues

The importance of having regional goals in Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s 50-year water vision for the state is clear to Engelland and Doug Zillinger, a dryland farmer from Logan, Kansas, who attended water meetings in Phillipsburg and Beloit.

“Our water level in the Smoky Hill-Saline region isn’t going down much,” Engelland said. “We have more of an alluvial aquifer, so if we get a good rain, it recharges.”

Engelland calls the Ogallala Aquifer in far western Kansas “a whole different ball game,” as it goes down and doesn’t seem to come back up.

“We need people to understand different types of water usage and also natural flow,” Zillinger said. “The reason we’re losing the Ogallala is because we are pumping it out, and it doesn’t recharge. The reason we are having trouble in the Solomon-Republican (region) is we often don’t take into account natural drainage and natural flow.”

Zillinger said his region, just north of the Smoky-Hill Saline region, doesn’t get as much rainfall as Kansas’ eastern areas but still witnesses some recharge of aquifers compared to those farther west on the Ogallala.

Education on economics

Although Zillinger grows mostly wheat, sorghum and forages on dryland acres, he said some farmers in his region do irrigate based on water availability. And, he has witnessed many irrigators embracing technologies and cutting back on water use.

“Most farmers seem to be utilizing seeds of drought-resistant varieties, which even with irrigation use less water to create extra bushels,” Zillinger said.

Most irrigators, he said, grow corn and soybeans, because “that’s where the money is.” However, he has seen more farmers shift to raising drought-tolerant crops, such as sorghum, and figuring out ways to remain economically viable.

“We can’t forget the economics,” Zillinger said. “That’s what drove us to the point we are now. If you added more water and more fertilizer, you got a bigger yield and more cash in the pocket. Now days, we have to think ‘more efficient.’”

People might also recognize that their neighbor can irrigate full-stream, while they can’t pump at all, Zillinger said. And, they have to be willing to live with that.

“As a dryland farmer, I always look at the trucks coming out of the irrigated fields and think ‘that would be the life,’” he said. “But, I also know they have much larger expenses and things to deal with that probably most dryland people don’t ever see.”

Education on conservation

Engelland travels across the state for his job and has looked for changes in conservation practices and their economic influences. He said he has witnessed both ends of the spectrum—Conservation Reserve Program ground bought out of contracts and planted when grain prices were high, and more conversion to conservation tillage.

Farmers switching to conservation tillage have helped slow reservoir sedimentation, Engelland said, but conservation requires ongoing action.

“A lot of sedimentation into Kanopolis (Reservoir) happened in the earlier years when we were plowing, and a lot of that sediment was washing off from the fields and down the streams,” Engelland said. “It doesn’t seem to happen as much today with all the no-till.”

Likewise, Zillinger said the Lovewell and Waconda reservoirs are more silted in than some of the newer ones in his region, the Keith Sebelius, Webster and Kirwin reservoirs, which don’t seem to be silting in as quickly.

“I can remember when we built Sebelius, and we had already implemented more terraces and were controlling runoff,” he said. “That’s probably one of the reasons it’s not silting in as fast.”

Many older reservoirs in the state that are more silted in have already surpassed their life expectancy of 20 to 25 years: a topic brought up at several of the recent statewide water meetings.

Engelland said that finding ways to fund and incentivize planting buffer strips could be beneficial, as these can help filter sediment, remove chemicals from fertilizers and enhance wildlife habitat.

Other incentives could help farmers switch to drip irrigation systems from pivot irrigation, Engelland said, as drip irrigation systems could be prohibitively expensive to implement and maintain.

On the irrigation side, Zillinger added that he would like to see crop insurance programs provide more options for limited irrigators, rather than just irrigators and dryland producers.

Aside from conservation in agriculture, municipal users also have a stake in water conservation—a clear point made by many who attended the water meetings.

“I spent 10 years on my first farm hauling in every drop of water we used on the place,” Zillinger said. “We didn’t have house water. We did take our clothes to town to the laundromat at that time, but we could manage to keep our household use down to 3,000 gallons (a month). If you look at the average household today, they’re likely running considerably more than that.”

The question “How do we value water?” brought up an array of responses at the meetings but centered on the idea that water is a vital resource many often take for granted.

The public meetings helped the regional goal leadership teams develop draft goals for the water vision plan, which will be presented to the Kansas Water Authority May 20.