The jury is still out on much of Gov. Sam Brownback’s first term, as well as the certainty of a second. But hopes continue to build that his legacy will include preserving and protecting Kansas’ water supply far into the century.
If so, that will be a big gift to his native state. As he said during one State of the State address, “We have no future without water.”
And that future long has looked grim, with lots of worried talk and some helpful regional efforts but no viable statewide strategy. That’s unsustainable, either for Kansas’ standing as an agricultural state or its economy.
Experts say that 85 percent of the water use in the state happens in western Kansas and that the Ogallala Aquifer could be 70 percent depleted in 50 years. By then, the state’s reservoirs also could be 40 percent sediment.
Last fall Brownback launched a process to craft a 50-year water plan. About 140 public meetings have been held and more than 7,000 people have weighed in – impressive numbers.
The Kansas Water Authority, the Kansas Agriculture Advisory Board and the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors will hear about the progress so far in a Friday meeting in Manhattan, before a first draft of the water plan is written and unveiled at a conference Oct. 23.
Some important steps already have been taken. A Salina crowd last week heard from Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, about the Local Enhanced Management Areas in western Kansas that are working on voluntary plans to cut consumption. In the LEMA in Sheridan County, for example, users agreed to reduce from 14 to 11 inches a year the amount of water pumped onto farmland, Streeter said, and have reduced pumping for irrigation by 20 percent, the Salina Journal reported.
Other key steps could include increasing the meters on wells, using more efficient irrigation technology, and transitioning to less-thirsty crops.
One significant challenge will be money, including to pay for new water sources. Removing 3 million cubic yards of sediment from John Redmond Reservoir near Burlington could cost $13.2 million, while a new reservoir could take $500 million. Building an aqueduct from far-northeast to western Kansas to pipe excess water from the Missouri River – a 32-year-old proposal that still sounds far-fetched – could require $4.4 billion.
“The question we have not an-swered yet is: What is the level of funding people will be comfortable with, and where will that revenue come from?” Earl Lewis, assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, told the Lawrence Journal-World.
Though politics sharply divide the state on various issues these days, Kansas needs vision, consensus and action on water. The steps Brownback is trying to take will determine what kind of Kansas exists decades from now.