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Kansas Governor Sam Brownback: Why Saving Water Is a Conservative Issue

In an interview, the governor of Kansas discusses his plan to conserve water in his drought-stricken state.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback talks during a news conference in Topeka, Kan., on March 7, 2014.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback talks during a news conference in Topeka, Kan., on March 7, 2014. Mike Yoder / The Lawrence Journal-World via AP file

On July 2, Kansas issued the first draft of its 50-year Water Vision Plan, which advocates cutting water use in the state by 20 percent over the next 20 years. This “call to action” was initiated by Kansas governor Sam Brownback, in large measure to address the rapid withdrawal of the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides freshwater for crop irrigation.

Brownback’s deep attachment to agriculture started with his boyhood on a pig farm; he became the state’s youngest agriculture secretary at age 29; and while serving in the U.S. Senate, was the top-ranking Republican on the Agriculture Appropriations Committee.

He recently spoke to NBC News at his office in Topeka about his plans to solve the state’s water crisis:

NBC: Is it fair to say that, given the drought conditions for the last five years, the Kansas farmer is being tested as never before?

Brownback: I don’t know that I necessarily agree with that. We’ve got more technology and knowledge at our disposal then we had in the 30s or the 50s, or even in the 80s. You go back to the Great Depression era, and we were having people dying of dust pneumonia. This period is not nearly as harsh – on people, on individuals.

Still, we’re in one of the worst droughts that we’ve experienced for some time. It’s been pulling on our aquifer harder. Part of that’s been good, in the sense that people are willing to talk realistically about what we need to do on the Ogallala. A lot of times, your policy formation doesn’t happen until it has to happen. And everybody [in Kansas] knows the facts. This isn’t something where people are saying: ‘I didn’t know we were using this water up.’ But at the end of the day, you’re not going to be able to use as much water out of the Ogallala … and the drought cycle has helped the political discussion and the policy discussion to be much more realistic, and one that we haven’t had in 30 years, maybe 50.

NBC: At this year’s Ogallala Workshop, in Lubbock, Texas, your name was invoked as a prominent public servant tackling the urgent issues surrounding the Ogallala. Do you want to be identified as having a leadership role on this issue?

Brownback: I don’t know that I need to be identified as having a leadership role. I just know when I was agriculture secretary in this state in the mid-80s, the early 90s, the one thing that we really didn’t get at that I lament is the heavy draw down of the Ogallala. Because I thought then: ‘We are not in a sustainable position.’ We started, we tried, we had a little task force going. It was very difficult to start the conversation because most people were going: ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.’ This is an old saying of western water law, and still true. We started a few people talking about it. We didn’t get anything done. Now we’re having a real conversation about it.

NBC: A recent Kansas State study forecast that nearly 70 percent of the aquifer would be effectively drained in the next 50 years. What was your reaction when you got that information?

Brownback: I was hopeful that it would do stir the discussion. Lincoln talked about how you moved the country with a common thought. The first thing you have to do is establish a common thought. I think the common thought that needed to be established was how quickly we’re draining this aquifer on the current trajectory. But you have options and you can conserve and extend it. I look at information like that and think that we can use it to move this discussion forward.

Like, maybe we don’t want to use 70 percent of it in that period of time? But then: what percentage do you want to use? That’s the visioning process. That was the part I was really having trouble with. How do you get people into the discussion, because everything typically turns quickly into a discussion of: ‘What’s it going to do to me?’ And what we wanted was a broader discussion that asks the question: ‘Where do we, as a state, want to be in 50 years?’ Once you can establish that, now here’s a series of practices we’re going to have to change or here’s a series of policy options you’re going to have to do to get there.

NBC: Is water and its availability a national security issue for the United States?

Brownback: I think it’s a global security issue – because if you pull [the High Plains] out of production, you drive food prices up globally. This is the biggest agricultural exporting country in the world, by far. You’ve got excellent farmers, great technology, a wonderful transportation system. So, we’re better at this than anybody. And you’ve got the rest of the world that’s getting hungry and wanting a little something more. So I think it’s a global security issue.

NBC: You have a photo of Mother Teresa in your office. Pope Francis chose his name after Francis of Assisi – the patron saint of ecology. How does your Catholic faith inform your work dealing with green issues?

Brownback: Typically that hasn’t been an area of interest in my wing of the Republican Party – the conservative wing of the party. Yet, I think it’s a natural fit. To conserve and be responsible for our natural resources is a very conservative position to take. But it’s also about taking care of what God gave you.

We’ve invested in this state in wind energy. We’ve been number three on new wind investment. At the same time, we’ve protected areas of the state from commercial wind farms. The key part of this is that you don’t want to see anything other than grass and sky. And so we protected it. That’s the point to me – you can use natural resources, just don’t hurt the stuff. You’ve got to be responsible.

I think God gave us a beautiful place. He gave us a fabulous aquifer. And I think we need to be responsible with that and see that future generations can use that as well.

This interview has been edited.