We live a special way of life in Kansas that is worth preserving for future generations, and critical to that way of life are our state’s plentiful natural resources. From land and water to wildlife and energy sources, we rely on natural resources to meet our daily needs.

Kansans understand this, and are working together in a variety of ways to conserve these resources for the future. Eleven years ago, I hosted my first Partners in Conservation Tour to learn more about the conservation efforts underway in our state. I recently hosted my 2011 tour in south central Kansas which focused on water conservation. Our lakes, rivers and aquifers provide clean water for Kansas to drink, but the importance of water does not stop there; it is the lifeblood of our municipalities, a foundation for recreation, and will direct the future of manufacturing and production agriculture.

This year’s tour, which included nine stops in Harvey, Sedgwick, Butler and Greenwood Counties, gave me the opportunity to learn how farmers, ranchers and business owners are partnering with municipalities, conservation groups and government agencies to improve our state’s water resources.

The tour began in Halstead, northwest of Wichita, where we learned about the Equus Beds Aquifer – the principal source of fresh water for south central Kansas. For the 550,000 Kansans who rely on this aquifer for drinking water, its dropping water level and encroaching saltwater plumes are of real concern. The water level has dropped by 40 feet since the 1940s because water is being consumed faster than nature can replenish it. This depletion has allowed for saltwater plumes from the Arkansas River to encroach upon fresh groundwater.

There are two ways to reverse the dropping water level in the aquifer: First, we must reduce the amount of water being withdrawn. Farmers irrigating from the aquifer use large quantities of water to grow their crops – but they have also led the way in finding innovative methods to reduce their water usage. Farmers like Steven Smith of Halstead have partnered with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to improve their irrigation systems, resulting in less water consumption without reducing crop yields.

Second, we must increase the amount of water recharging the aquifer. I visited the city of Wichita to learn about its innovative program, which takes flood water from the Little Arkansas River, purifies it to drinking water standards, and returns it to the aquifer. As the water is pumped into the aquifer, it creates a barrier that forces back saltwater plumes. With one in five Kansans relying on the Equus Beds aquifer for clean water, the success of this joint local, state and federal initiative matters.

During the second day of the tour, we visited the Diamond R Ranch near Fall River, where ranch owners Darrell and Dee Rolph – along with ranch managers Harold and Travis Stapleford – have a forward thinking livestock operation. The ranch places high importance on providing quality drinking water to their cow calf and stocker herd, and has fenced in nine ponds to protect them from contamination. Thanks to the Conservation Reserve Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the ranch has also installed filter strips and field borders around cropland to improve water quality. As a result, the sickness rate of the Rolphs’ herd has decreased by one-third.

We then visited El Dorado, where I learned more about the unique, cost-effective waste water treatment operation the city has put into place. In 2007, the city of El Dorado was the first community in Kansas to develop a wetland as a way of helping treat wastewater – resulting in a savings of $4 million. Without the wetland, El Dorado would have needed to build a large – and much more expensive – wastewater treatment facility.

The conservation tour ended at El Dorado Reservoir – an 8,000-acre recreation destination for south central Kansas that has great fishing, swim beaches and a full-service marina. At the lake, we learned about the partnership between Newman University, Burns & McDonnell Engineering, and J&S Leasing in proposing a 177-acre whitewater river wetland and stream mitigation bank in El Dorado. The bank would work to reduce pollution while also providing a diverse and ecologically sound aquatic habitat.

This year’s Partners in Conservation Tour was a terrific opportunity for participants to showcase new conservation practices. To learn more about all nine stops, please visit my website at It is great news that municipalities like Wichita and El Dorado, innovative farmers and business owners, and universities and government agencies are partnering together to make certain  Kansas remains as beautiful and rich in natural resources in the future as it is today.