Eagle editorial: Preserve the state’s water supply

07/13/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

Though it’s only a discussion draft and doesn’t include cost estimates, a Kansas “water vision” plan unveiled earlier this month is a valuable step toward preserving our state’s water supply.

As the draft states: “We must plan for the future now.”

Gov. Sam Brownback called last fall for creating a 50-year vision for the state’s water supply and setting benchmarks needed to reach that vision. The Kansas Water Office, the Kansas Department of Agriculture and others then held meetings across the state to gather suggestions.

The draft plan outlines more than 170 possible strategies under four main themes: water conservation, water management, technology and crop varieties, and new sources of supply. Though western Kansas and the Ogallala Aquifer are key focuses, the plan includes options for long-term goals in each of the state’s regional aquifers and calls for activities to ensure the sustainability of reservoirs.

Meetings last week, including one in Wichita, gathered reactions to the draft. That begins the hard work of finalizing the plan and agreeing on goals and strategies, some of which could be costly.

For example, one potential goal is to reduce statewide water consumption by 20 percent. That likely would require some involuntary conservation measures, which may require economic incentives. How much would that cost, and where would the money come from?

The draft also proposes pricing water “such that it encourages conservation by identifying its true value.”

It is also crucial to implement conservation measures in a careful, balanced way. Irrigated cropland in the Ogallala region was responsible for $1.75 billion in corn production and $384 billion in retail beef production in 2012. Restrictions that are too severe could harm the state’s economy.

At a meeting last week in Garden City, one participant wondered whether the water plan could create a rural-urban divide, with populous Sedgwick and Johnson counties skewing the priorities of the plan. Agriculture Secretary Jackie McClaskey said one of the goals in creating a 50-year vision is to get ahead of any east-west battle over water and make sure the entire state’s water needs are met over the long term, the Garden City Telegram reported.

There has been impressive public buy-in and cooperation among stakeholders thus far. Part of that is because of Brownback’s strong leadership on this issue. It’s also because people are recognizing the urgency and severity of the problem.

Some areas of southwest Kansas have had a 70-foot decline in water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer during the past 15 years. A study by Kansas State University researchers estimated that if current irrigation trends continue, about 70 percent of the groundwater stored in the Ogallala will be depleted in 50 years. Also, the state’s reservoirs could be 40 percent filled with sediment within 50 years.

The draft plan warned: “The writing is on the wall, and if we don’t act today, our future is bleak.” Kansas must act.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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