Volume 34, No.2, Winter 2015

Farming Water Quality in Kansas

Private landowners provide a city with clean water.

Agriculture is big business for farmers in south-central Kansas. Now, thanks to an innovative partnership, farmers are being paid to produce another valuable output: clean water.

The city of Wichita relies on Cheney Lake for its drinking water. In the early 1990s, however, algal blooms and increased sedimentation in the lake alerted area residents and farmers that water quality could no longer be taken for granted. In a region dominated by agriculture, the source of declining water quality was clear, and local farmers accepted responsibility.

The environmental and economic costs were far reaching. Declining water quality resulted in increased water treatment costs for the city of Wichita. Furthermore, it compromised the ecological integrity of the watershed, affecting local fish and wildlife habitat and opportunities for local anglers and recreationists.

Recognizing the economic value of reducing pollution in the watershed, the city partnered with local farmers to encourage conservation practices that would improve water quality. Since 1994, the city of Wichita has provided partial reimbursements (typically 30 to 40 percent) to farmers for implementing practices that reduce pollutants entering streams. The city also provides up to 50 percent of the cost to landowners to install perimeter fencing for maintaining grasslands.

In response, many farmers in the Cheney Lake watershed have incorporated a conservation ethic into their agricultural practices. In addition to growing crops, many farmers now manage their lands in ways that provide water quality and enhanced habitat for fish and wildlife species.

Among the roughly 1,000 farmers in the region, more than 2,000 conservation practices have been implemented on a voluntary basis. These efforts illustrate that responsible land management begins with the landowner, and that a bottom-up approach to watershed management works.

The partnership between the city and farmers is mutually beneficial. Farmers improve their land use practices while maintaining their lands in agricultural production. The city of Wichita, in return, reduces water treatment costs and extends the lifespan of the Cheney Lake reservoir while providing more than 300,000 people with clean water.

For more information, see PERC’s case study “Cheney Lake Watershed: Farming Water Quality in Kansas.”

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