Amid the confusion and controversy of this election year, it may be difficult to focus on the important fundamental issues that affect our daily lives.
But through the distractions, one major issue deserves our full attention. That issue is water – the physical basis for our existence and a valuable resource that assures our future economic success.
For water customers served by the city of Wichita, our future supply is preserved in the underground reservoir northwest of the city. The Equus Beds aquifer provides water to one out of every five Kansans. The city of Wichita holds senior rights to the Equus Beds but readily shares this critical resource with agricultural production, other municipalities and domestic wells.
For the past five years, the city has asked the state government to share the costs of the Equus Beds Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) project, a $220 million investment of Wichita city water revenues that assures our water supply through the year 2050. The project takes excess water from the Little Arkansas River, treats it to drinking water standard, and injects it back into the aquifer for later use.
To date, the state has contributed just more than $3 million. That amount includes $500,000 from the recently adjourned 2012 Kansas Legislature. Given the formidable agenda of tax reform, reapportionment and other weighty issues that faced Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature this year, the city is extremely grateful for this favorable outcome.
Now, the process begins anew, as the city works with the Kansas Water Authority to advance next year’s funding request.
The city is seeking an additional $2 million in state funding as a final state payment toward the costs of the ASR project. Those funds could come from several sources, including the state water fund, gaming revenues or the state general fund.
Over the past several years of fiscal distress, the Legislature has been unable to honor its statutory obligation to contribute $6 million annually from the state’s general fund in support of the state’s water budget. Consequently, the fee-based water fund has been the primary revenue source for the annual Kansas Water Office budget. That fund includes more than $1 million annually in state-assessed fees paid by Wichita water customers.
A solid base of state funding is essential to Kansas water policy. The state needs to take this fiscal responsibility much more seriously, whether through the general fund or some other source.
Though hugely important to the future of Wichita’s water customers, the ASR project is only one of several critical policy issues facing the Kansas Water Authority and the Legislature.
This past legislative session, the governor led a timely discussion of state water policy that resulted in fundamental policy changes. The decades-old “use it or lose it” policy was revoked, a change that will encourage water conservation. The governor’s “flex” plan will allow irrigators to manage their annual water allocation over a five-year period – another commonsense change to better manage our water resources.
It is time to take this public policy discussion further and revisit the relationship between municipalities and agriculture. Municipalities need a stronger voice at the water-policy table.
The dialogue between the state and municipal water users touches several major issues, including Equus Beds water rights, the threat of saltwater intrusion and adequate regulation.
I look forward to the opportunity to engage that dialogue over the next several months. With the governor’s continued leadership in refining the state’s water policy, I’m optimistic that every citizen of Kansas will benefit from the outcome.