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‘We can’t wait 15 years’: Legislative Committee Works to Overhaul Kansas Water Policy

'Situation in our state is serious'

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Above image credit: The dry bed of the Arkansas River near the Santa Fe Trail crossing at Cimarron. The Ogallala aquifer groundwater levels in much of western Kansas started dropping in the 1950s as pumping increased, according to the Kansas Geological Survey. (Courtesy | Max McCoy)

Time to protect water in Kansas is running short. 

Parts of the aquifer in far western Kansas may only have 10 years of water left. Small towns are struggling to provide clean drinking water, and upgrading their facilities would bankrupt them. 

If the state is going to preserve its water resources, it has to act soon, say proponents of an overhaul to the state’s water regulation.

“I don’t like to use the word ‘crisis,’ but our situation in our state is serious,” said Rep. Ron Highland, chairman of the House Water Committee. 

For years, the state hasn’t fully funded its water plan. It has failed to secure federal grants to help with water projects because they require a state match. Gov. Laura Kelly has proposed in her budget that the state fund its share for water programs — $8 million — for the first time in more than a decade

But fully addressing the state’s ever-smaller supply of water will take more like $55 million per year, according to a task force convened under former Gov. Sam Brownback. It will also take, Highland said, a cabinet secretary who’s at the table when budget priorities are set. 

Highland has led the House Water Committee through a series of studies, site visits and, now, an effort to completely restructure the way Kansas thinks about its water resources. 

“One of the problems we noticed when we were going through all of this is that the water programs have been underfunded for years,” Highland said, “and part of the reason for that is you don’t have a seat at the table when budget discussions occur.” 

Environmental groups, municipal water utilities and water experts lauded the committee’s effort to elevate water as a concern in Kansas, allocate money to the issue and clarify a confusing web of governmental departments. 

Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the bill the most transformational water policy bill in more than 30 years. 

“(If) you champion this across the Legislature this year, (it) will create a legacy for our generation, current generations, but generations to come for Kansas,” Pistora said. “I think we can’t lose sight of that.” 

Big Changes to Kansas Water Policy

House Bill 2686 would elevate water concerns to the governor’s cabinet by establishing a new Kansas Department of Water and Environment. Currently, water issues are housed in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the Kansas Water Authority, and other state and federal agencies. 

The worst part, Highland said, is that Kansas missed out on an unknown sum in federal grants because it didn’t pay for its portion of the projects. 

“We left a lot of federal funds on the table,” Highland said. “We never got those funds because we could not match them.” 

Highland said the secretary’s office would also serve as a “clearinghouse” for all information on water, which can be difficult to come by because of the disparate nature of the departments. 

The bill also would increase fees for water users that haven’t changed in 40 years and levy new ones on some irrigators. The committee estimates those fees would raise more than $8 million each year. Coupled with the governor’s pledge to fund the state’s portion for water priorities, it would mean a big boost to spending on projects to help conserve water in western Kansas and water quality throughout the state. 

Gov. Laura Kelly says the $8 million needed to fully fund the State Water Plan will go a long way, but not long enough.
Gov. Laura Kelly says the $8 million needed to fully fund the State Water Plan will go a long way, but not long enough. (Sherman Smith | Kansas Reflector)

The most controversial element of the bill would enact more standards for groundwater management districts, which govern water use and conservation in south central and western Kansas. The five districts have varied widely in their efforts concerning water conservation.

Under the bill, they would be required to provide full reports on their revenues and expenditures to the state and file a conservation plan for approval by the state’s chief water engineer. 

Highland acknowledged pushback from groundwater management district representatives who feel they’re doing an effective job. 

“But by the same token, they’ve had decades now, and the water table is going down,” Highland said. “So we need to put some pressure on this.”

The committee’s ranking Democrat echoed those concerns. 

“These entities have existed for 50 years … and we still haven’t seen a lot of progress in some of those very critical areas,” said Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, of Overland Park. 

The legislation would also give more power to residents residing within groundwater management districts who do not hold water rights. Right now, to serve on the board of a groundwater management district, someone must own at least 40 contiguous acres or a water right to withdraw water on the property.

“Tying property rights ownership to voting — that smacks a little bit of 1860s,” Highland said. 

Burke Griggs, a professor of water law at Washburn University, warned the current arrangement is likely unconstitutional. 

Several representatives of the groundwater management districts decried the proposal as an overreach by the state and urged legislators to trust local representatives. 

Brett Oelke, president of Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 4 — lauded for its success in halting and even reversing depletion of the aquifer — said municipalities could qualify to vote on the board there. But he said 98% of the water use in the district is for agriculture, and those stakeholders should be represented on the board. 

Tim Boese, manager of Equus Beds Groundwater Management District No. 2, said the board of 15 has had a representative of municipal utilities for 28 of his 30 years on the board. And he disputed the notion that the board was skewed toward farmers who irrigate their crops using groundwater. 

“They should absolutely have a voice, but when it comes to elections, I’m not sure that it’s proper that someone who’s not a water user or a landowner … would then have control over other people’s property rights, those water rights and their land,” he said. 

Some members of the committee from rural areas of the state pushed back on the idea of interfering in the districts’ work and suggested pushing proposed fees off for a couple of years. 

“I’m a farmer myself, and I hate rules, regulations, and yet I eventually will get to the right place, and that’s why I think we must go much slower on this,” said Rep. Boyd Orr, a Fowler Republican. “… I think we need to reconsider the fact that farmers, Kansans usually do things right; it just takes us a little bit of time.” 

Agricultural Opposition

Several of Kansas’ major agricultural groups — the Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Livestock Association and the Kansas Corngrowers Association — also stood opposed to the bill, raising the prospect the committee might have to battle with the state’s largest industry to pass a bill. 

Aaron Popelka, vice president of legal and government affairs for the Kansas Livestock Association, commended the committee for holding hearings and doing research on water issues in Kansas over the past year, but he said the window for consideration on the bill was too narrow.

“This is a sort of process where we need to have concepts and language months in advance, not less than two weeks before turnaround,” Popelka said. 

Popelka said the bill was unnecessary and called it a “solution in search of a problem.” He said the bill would give the state’s chief water engineer too much unilateral control over groundwater management districts and opposed increases to fees. He noted the state’s portion of the water plan would be fully funded for the first time in years. 

“Perhaps we ought to see that we have the ability to spend this money and use it right before we increase more fees,” Popelka said. 

Vaughn noted that parts of the aquifer in western Kansas have just 10 to 30 years of usable life. 

“If a solution isn’t found or these issues aren’t addressed, then those members are going to potentially lose these livelihoods if they don’t have a source of water,” Vaughn said, “so I think that’s misleading to say this is in search of a problem because the problem exists.” 

The nearly 300-page bill is exempt from a deadline requiring all legislation to pass its chamber of origin by the end of the week, but even so, overhauling Kansas’ approach to water is a hefty lift. Some legislators urged the committee to slow down. 

Highland proposed removing the provisions changing the way groundwater management districts are run but still requiring them to report more information to the state. He said the committee could request that an interim committee study that issue after the legislative session ends, and he proposed requesting an audit of the districts and an opinion from the attorney general on the legality of election procedures. 

Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, a Prairie Village Democrat, said he was sympathetic to the concerns about agriculture, but that it’s important to move quickly to help small towns struggling with drinking water and wastewater. 

“We can’t wait 15 years to look at drinking water and how we process wastewater and so on,” he said. “It might be too late at that point.”

Allison Kite is a data reporter for the Missouri Independent and the Kansas Reflector, where this story first appeared, with a focus on the environment and agriculture.

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