For Gov. Sam Brownback, the contentious issue of water already has proved a big winner in this legislative session, garnering unanimous votes for two bills in both chambers. But he and other officials still need to account for Wichita’s unique role in the state’s water policy.
Wednesday will offer a chance to seek a solution – at the Kansas Water Office’s issues forum in Wichita.
Brownback made a strong case for the repeal of the 67-year-old “use-it-or-lose-it” policy in his State of the State address in January, arguing “it is way past time we move from a development policy with our water to a conservation ethic.” Giving irrigators more flexibility is seen as crucial to extending the life of the vast Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas. But the welcome legislation to newly allow farmers to store up their water rights for use in dry years could end up undermining Wichita’s effort to sustain this region’s water supply.
Wichita is investing millions of dollars in a project to recharge the Equus Beds aquifer with water drawn from the Little Arkansas River during high-flow periods and then purified; Wichita’s water rights at new wells let the city draw water until the aquifer reaches 1993 levels, which are comparatively low.
If farmers manage a drought by using their saved-up water rights, the aquifer depletion might be such that Wichita couldn’t access the water it pumped into the aquifer for just such a non-rainy day.
Another reason for concern: The Kansas Geological Survey recently reported that water levels in the Equus Beds groundwater management district fell 3.17 feet during 2011, after declines of just 0.26 feet and 0.70 feet the two previous years.
Earlier in the month, Brownback said Wichita’s concerns about Equus Beds water depletion must be addressed before he would sign the “use-it-or-lose-it” legislation.
Wichitans should hold him to that or some other clear fix, so they can join the chorus of praise for his already historic leadership on water.