Hogs, residents compete for Kansas county's water supply

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

TRIBUNE, Kan. (AP) — Only 1,200 people live in Kansas' smallest county, where using irrigation to quench thirsty crops is no longer an option for many because the water source underneath this flat, arid prairie is nearly exhausted due to decades of overuse.

Recognizing that economic development was at a standstill, county residents narrowly voted five years ago to allow corporate hog-feeding operations to move in and bolster the tax base in the county that abuts Colorado and is named after New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley of "Go West, young man" fame. A second feeding operation was just approved by the state.

It's a significant tradeoff: Kansas-based Seaboard Foods is now the county's top taxpayer, with the nation's second-largest hog feeding operation accounting for roughly 9 percent of its tax base.

Though the thousands of hogs require less water than it would take to irrigate crops, the company is pumping wells that had been idled for a decade. Environmentalists and some residents fear that instead of preserving the remaining water for residents, the county will be a desert once the hogs and the water are long gone.

"We are selling our natural resources for short-term gain," said Larry Pridey, who shut down his irrigation wells in the 1990s and only gets four gallons of water a minute from his newly drilled household well.

It took tens of thousands of years to fill the Ogallala Aquifer that underlies parts of seven states, but the Kansas Geological Survey says large-scale irrigation that began in the 1950s has effectively drained the aquifer in Greeley County for most agricultural purposes. Groundwater recharge averages less than an inch a year due to little rain and a deep water table.

Seaboard Foods' vast complex is lashed by harsh winds, whipping up white-capped waves across 14 wastewater lagoons that hold refuse from 180 barns. Another 120 barns will be built nine miles away, meaning hogs will soon outnumber county residents 275 to 1 and produce wastes akin to 1 million people.

The irrigation wells at the first site were shut down for 10 years under voluntary government conservation programs. Once those contracts ended, farmer Daniel Peter sold the water rights to Seaboard.

"I don't have to worry about it now," he said.

Seaboard insists it has enough water for pigs to drink, plus clean its barns and operate lagoons. The company provided The Associated Press with a detailed list of its water rights, including historical and current usages, which shows the company is using about 30 percent of the water that had been pumped before the wells were shut down for a decade. Seaboard also left some water rights untapped in a voluntary conservation program.

No state regulator has ever determined whether enough water remains in the aquifer to support a large-scale hog feeding operation, according to Craig Volland with the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club.

"It's like nobody is watching the store here," he said.

However, the state doesn't have to ensure there's enough water for Seaboard to operate, said Tara Mahin, chief of the livestock waste management section at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. KDHE's only concern is whether Seaboard can meet requirements for operating its waste lagoons, and it recently approved a request to fill new lagoons with wastewater from other lagoons instead of using fresh water.

About a mile from the original site, the home that Janice Young and her husband built 15 years ago recently saw its taxable value lowered because of its proximity to the hogs. The smell from them wafts through the house even when the windows and doors are shut, and the flies are horrible, Young said.

"We don't have the money or influence to fight it, so they get whatever they want basically," Young said. "And the rest of us have to live with it."

But Greeley County did have a choice. As Joe Locke, a senior operation manager at Seaboard, put it, voters "actually welcomed us."

At the time of that 2010 vote, taxable values had fallen to some of their lowest levels in its history. Now, Seaboard's tax payments have allowed the county to give its employees raises and to "keep our head above water," said Kirby Kleymann, chairman of the Greeley County Board of Supervisors.

The economic boost is visible: At least 115 semis a week haul in feed or take hogs to Seaboard's out-of-state slaughterhouse. Seaboard buys 1.5 million bushels of grain at the local elevator. Once the second site is operational, Seaboard will employ 50 total employees in the county.

Kleymann, who can see the hog buildings from his home, has no regrets. "We are a farming community, and it's hard to get anything in here but a farming industry," he said.

The newest hog operation will be built less than four miles from Larry Steele's farm, where no useable water remains. He had to spend thousands of dollars to pipe in water from property two miles away, but that source also is dwindling. He anticipates "the day of reckoning is coming."

"Some of the people here were desperate and had to have money," he said, recounting how some folks would tell him Seaboard was "good for the economy and it is good, good, good.

"And I said, 'It wouldn't be so good when you don't have any water to drink — and that is not very far in the future.'"