From the driver’s seat, southwest Kansas may appear foreign to those hailing from points east.

A distinct lack of trees and vegetation starting around the Hays area and expanding westward into Colorado is obvious to all who dwell in forested areas. 

For KU professor Paul Stock, it’s a chance to expose his students to different sides of the Sunflower State. Stock led a group of six KU undergraduates on a road trip through the entire state for two weeks in June, starting in Lawrence and making stops at sites that are notable for implementing environmental best practices, or at least addressing local environmental issues.

Stock called his inaugural trip Kansas Abroad, a reference to the common practice of college students living and studying in foreign countries to broaden their skills and experiences. Except in this case, the “foreign country” is Kansas and its physiographic regions, often culturally distant from the campus life surrounding Mount Oread in Lawrence.

All of the students who went on the trip hailed from eastern Kansas. The farthest west a student came from was Wichita, another sign of Kansas’ accelerating urbanization. Half of the state’s population lives in six urban counties – Sedgwick, Shawnee, Douglas, Leavenworth, Wyandotte and Johnson.

Stock says he originally wanted to take his students overseas, but the COVID-19 pandemic limited travel with a group. Kansas Abroad is an alternative that presents valuable opportunities for Stock’s students.

“Kansas is confronting many of the great issues and concerns the world has,” Stock says, “whether it’s water, rural population loss, how to make decisions about communities, energy production, growing food and caring for animals, as well as the land and places we live in. It struck me that we can learn about the rest of the world by asking these questions of Kansans in their daily work lives and communities. To be able to put students in dialogue with the people tackling these issues proved to be a great learning experience.”

The trip took students to environmental, agricultural and cultural sites in places as varied as Humboldt, Pittsburg, the Flint Hills, Wichita and Sharon Springs. Visits to Greensburg, devastated by a 2007 tornado, and the Gypsum Hills, scorched by wildfires in 2016, provided the chance for students to see communities recovering from environmental disasters of the recent past. Scenes from the trip were documented on the Instagram account @KansasAbroad.

Not everything the students visited would rank high on the list of many tourists.

On one hot day, the trip took Stock and his students to the municipal wastewater recycling center south of Dodge City, considered by local officials to be the largest body of water in Ford County. It  handles two billion gallons of water each year, held in four retaining ponds that cover 180 acres. That water is mostly used for ag irrigation purposes, with peak season lasting from May to September.

The plant was one of several stops that gave students a better grasp of how farmers, ranchers, engineers and municipal leaders are dealing with environmental concerns, including water supply issues in southwest Kansas due to the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, the dry climate and recent drought.

This topic rests within Stock’s wheelhouse. He just finished his 10th year at KU, and he’s interested in how agricultural producers survive year in and year out.

“I study farmers and their families,” Stock says. “It doesn’t matter what they’re growing, but it’s more about why they do what they do, and how they adjust or adapt when changes to the economy happen, or more recently, discussions about how the climate is changing or industries are changing.”

Kansas Study Abroad students take a photo
The Kansas Abroad class from KU poses for a photo in front of an anaerobic retaining tarp housing a portion of Dodge City’s wastewater. Professor Paul Stock (third from left) led the class around Kansas this summer to several environmentally notable sites, including the “green-built” community of Greensburg and the wildfire-scorched area of Gypsum Hills. Credit: AJ Dome


One of Stock’s students on the journey, Chase Perkins, thinks the water shortage in the western half of the state is the most urgent issue regarding Kansas’ environmental future. Perkins, a senior in ecology, evolutionary biology and environmental studies hails from Tecumseh, near Topeka.

“The Ogallala and the High Plains Aquifers have, for decades now, been decreasing in water levels,” Perkins says, an observation backed up by data. 

In an interview in January of this year, Kansas water expert Susan Metzger said researchers have determined that if no changes are made regarding water conservation in western Kansas, the Ogallala Aquifer will be 70% depleted within 50 years. 

Metzger is the associate director for agriculture and extension at Kansas State University. She says irrigation specialists with K-State Extension have been working with farmers to try out different nozzle packages on center pivot irrigation units, install more soil moisture probes and experiment with different crop varieties to manage water usage and ultimately use less.

Even with a combination of better technology and best-use practices, the trend line for groundwater is headed toward scarcity. Perkins says the Ogallala “takes huge blows” to its water levels each year as the ratio of depletion to restoration becomes more lopsided.

“This fossil water has been there for millions of years, and we are using it as if it will fill back up overnight,” Perkins says. “Farmers even acknowledge up to 85% water level losses in some years but continue to pump it out. Soon, however, the water out west will become worth more than oil, if it hasn’t already, and that should be scary.”


Perkins is a senior ecology and evolutionary biology major with a minor in environmental studies. He says he’d never visited the southwest corner of the state before, having previously traveled only as far west as the Hays/WaKeeney area. He’d also been to summer camps in Salina, but never made it as far as Dodge City. 

The group’s stop in Hays was built around conversations with city leaders. City Manager Toby Dougherty says the students went to the Sternberg Museum to see dinosaur fossils and prehistoric exhibits unearthed by Kansas paleontologist George F. Sternberg. They also learned how the city of 22,000 people, home to Fort Hays State University, secures water for its residents.

“There are 35 Kansas counties with a population of more than 15,000,” Dougherty says, “and when you look at those on a map, 34 of them are either along or east of a line running down from Salina to Wichita, or they rest along a major aquifer. All the other population centers are east of that line, where you have reliable surface water flow.”

Dougherty says Hays, in Ellis County, is too far west to rely on surface water, and it doesn’t sit above an aquifer, so city leaders had to get creative more than 50 years ago to solve the water issue.

“Hays has been dealing with water issues since the 1950s,” Dougherty says. “We have a well field in Big Creek, and one in the Smoky Hill River valley. Even when that opened up in the ‘50s, they knew it was a temporary solution.”

Dougherty says city leaders started implementing water conservation measures in the early 1990s, and “we’ve stuck with them.”

“We live those water conservation measures every year,” Dougherty says. “I’ve had to go to Tucson and Phoenix and Las Vegas to find best practices (for water conservation). We are the only community in Kansas that acts like a desert city in the southwest U.S.”

Dougherty, a native of Lucas, about 60 miles northwest of Hays, has served as its city manager since 2005. He says he’s heard every trope and joke about where western Kansas begins on a map.

“I think it’s all relative,” Dougherty says. “If you live in Johnson County, western Kansas starts with Wanamaker Boulevard in Topeka.”

Dougherty recalls an annual city and county managers conference held in Garden City about eight years ago, where a group of Johnson County officials had rented a van and driven across the state to attend.

“They were so proud of themselves,” Dougherty says, “you’d have thought they’d come to Siberia.”

Dougherty has children who live in Florida and upstate New York. To them, he says, everything west of Ohio is flyover country. 

“I think it’s hugely important for people who’ve spent much of their life in a metropolitan area to realize there’s a population and towns out here that are unique and interesting, that have an arts and culture scene, and lots of cool things going on,” Dougherty says.

A dirt mover in Dodge City
Dirt-moving crews are digging out and smoothing over six acres of land south of Dodge City to become a fourth lagoon for the city’s wastewater recycling center. A $62 million expansion project was approved two years ago to accommodate the installation of a new Hilmar Cheese dairy processing plant in the region. Once completed, about 270 acres of wastewater will be contained in Ford County lagoons. Credit: AJ Dome


Perkins says perceptions of Kansas get shaped by word of mouth, which often fails to give the state a chance.

“Most people only know about Kansas what everyone else tells them about it,” Perkins says. “People constantly say that Kansas is a flyover state without ever even leaving the interstate that runs through it. It’s a disappointing stigma that people need to get out of their mind.”

Amaya Dajani is in Stock’s class majoring in environmental studies and urban planning and will be a senior. She says she loved hearing different opinions around the state regarding things such as wind energy.

“It’s interesting to see the varying lenses through (this trip),” Dajani says. She most enjoyed the class’s stop at the Jako Farms dairy near Hutchinson.

“Their relationship with the land, between the farmer and land, farmer and animals, it was a special visit,” Dajani says.

This fall, Dajani and other students in Stock’s class will work on answering the question: ‘What is Kansas’ environmental future?’ by focusing on topics gleaned from their summer road trip. At the end of the semester, the students will publicly present their research.

Perkins says his notions about what Kansas has to offer have changed, and he “had no idea it would be this good.” In a twist, he says Kansas feels more foreign to him now than it did before he embarked on the trip.

“From the Monument Rocks to the Arikaree Breaks, back to the woodland northeast, the palate of Kansas goes beyond what I thought possible, and it’s been awesome to experience it,” Perkins says.

For Stock, there’s philosophical value in studying abroad – or within your state – and “shaking yourself loose of everything that you’ve known.” He would like to continue offering the course.

“What that does is allow you to more deeply connect with the person you want to become,” Stock says. “It’s not a guarantee; it’s not a shortcut to a better or more wisdom-filled life. It’s a way to challenge your assumptions about how the world operates in ways that can be scary but, I think in the long run, allows students to mature and develop in ways that aren’t possible staying on campus for the duration of their academic career.”

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