Of the roughly 700 people in attendance at the kickoff of the Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas, one key person appeared to be missing: the governor.
To the relief of all, Gov. Sam Brownback strode into the room to take the stage just as Kansas Water Office Director Tracy Streeter nervously used up his last joke.
Brownback’s speech — and much of the conference’s first day — focused on the second draft of the governor-prompted project, a 50-Year Water Vision for the state of Kansas. The vision was launched in October 2013. Since then, a team of state officials has met with more than 9,000 Kansans over the course of hundreds of meetings, where they hashed out water resource concerns and solutions.
The result is an ambitious, 80-page document that focuses on slowing the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas and stopping the steady sedimentation of 14 federal reservoirs, which provide water to two-thirds of the state’s residents.
Since irrigation accounts for 80% of the state’s water use, agriculture and irrigation issues feature prominently in the vision document. Chief among the vision’s goals and conference discussions were the use of Locally Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs), and the future of a controversial study to build an aqueduct to shuttle excess water from the Missouri River out to western Kansas.
Brownback said by next year, he hopes the vision will have made visible progress, such as generating more LEMAs, which allow local areas to create and submit to voluntary water reduction goals.
The success of Kansas’ first LEMA in Sheridan County in northwestern Kansas bolstered the governor and the vision’s contention that “local is best” when it comes to water conservation.
The Sheridan-6 LEMA requires all water-right users in a 99-square-mile region to abide by a 20% reduction of water use over five years, leaving them with 55 inches per acre to be used over the five-year period.
In the first year of its existence, the Sheridan LEMA came in under its goals. Growers used an annual average of 10.29 inches per acre for a total use of 20,775 acre feet, below the goal of 22,800 acre feet. Moreover, the rate of aquifer decline in the region slowed significantly compared to the past five years.
Several other groundwater districts in Kansas are considering LEMAs, but have had trouble wrangling agreements among regional growers on the extent and execution of water reductions. Among the vision’s goals is a proposal to allow even smaller and more localized groups to propose and execute a LEMA, said Secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey.
“In this year’s legislative session, we want to talk about where a LEMA can come from,” she explained. “We’re working with local conservation districts about bringing a LEMA forward, or even someone who owns enough water rights and has enough ownership on their own to bring a LEMA forward as an individual landowner.”
The vision also proposes increasing enforcement of water rights and issuing harsher penalties for water use violations. This proposal would require official changes to the Kansas Water Appropriation Act and would undergo a public comment period, Streeter assured conference attendees.
WATER TO GO
Another proposal in the vision suggests making additional changes to the state’s Water Appropriation Act to make it easier to divert water from one place to another and even allow water-right holders to lease out their water rights to interested users.
The controversial proposal of an aqueduct that would pipe overflow water from the river out to western Kansas also remains on the table. With financial support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Kansas Water Office, and Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3 in southwestern Kansas, a team of engineers and legal analysts are updating a 1982 federal study on just such an aqueduct.
Streeter said that while water transfers like this might seem farfetched now, they will likely be a part of Kansas’ future. “I think it’s inevitable,” he told DTN. “It’s happening in the western United States, where it’s kind of the norm — they’re moving water all kinds of places. If we don’t do it, I think someone else is going to make a play on the Missouri River.”
The vision proposes organizing a summit of Missouri River states in the next year or two to hash out the possibility of growers tapping into the river for irrigation.
“It’s probably our most prolific resource in the state of Kansas when you think about the amount of flow that goes past our border on a given day,” Streeter said of the river.
He displayed a chart showing the 100-year history of the Missouri River levels and noted that 85% of the time, flow rates surpassed 1.6 million acre-feet of water, the amount required for safe navigation. “That’s water that doesn’t serve any of those eight authorized purposes and is not managed by the Corps of Engineers,” Streeter said.
The updated aqueduct study should be ready by the winter of 2015, said Greg Graff, a farmer in western Kansas and a member of the Kansas Aqueduct Committee. Key among the study’s results will be the updated cost of the aqueduct, which could run as high as $20 billion and promises to be prohibitive. “I don’t think we have a way to finance it yet,” Streeter noted.