LAWRENCE -- A study by University of Kansas researchers revealed a five-year, $2.9 million state program offering landowners cash to permanently retire water rights in the High Plains Aquifer was effective in high-priority conservation areas.


Analysis of the Kansas Water Right Transition Assistance Program that was developed to trim groundwater or surface water consumption showed incentives had little influence in creek subbasins or in terms of water taken for drinking purposes. The report examined program effectiveness from 2008–2012.


“Maybe it’s a start, but it’s not something you would expect to stabilize the depletion,” said Tsvetan Tsvetanov, a KU assistant professor of economics. “This is just a drop in the bucket. Essentially what we need is some alternative source of income for those people living out there, aside from irrigation-intensive agriculture.”


Research by Tsvetanov and Dietrich Earnhart, an economics professor at KU, published in the current issue of Land Economics said 6,000 acre feet of water rights were retired during the five-year pilot program. The state offered $2,000 for every acre feet of water right that farmers agreed to permanently retire.


The High Plains aquifer, also known as the Ogallala, underlies 175,000 square miles in parts of eight states, including Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Kansas trails only Texas in loss of recoverable groundwater in the aquifer from 1950 to 2015.


Tsvetanov said the state’s conservation initiative resulted in no reduction of usage in creek areas but reduction in groundwater use in high-priority areas.


“Our first thought was, ‘That’s not what we expected,’” Tsvetanov said. “The creeks are the geographic majority of what’s being covered by the policy. The high-priority areas are called that for a reason — they’ve been struggling for many years.”


KU researchers said there was a negligible influence on surface water use.


“I don’t want to discourage efforts to conserve water use among residential households,” Tsvetanov said. “But if we want to really make a difference, it’s the agricultural sector that needs to change its practices.”