Politics & Government

Kansas water-rights plan evaporates in Legislature

TOPEKA — A proposal by Kansas Agriculture Secretary Josh Svaty to increase water conservation across the state appears to have dried up.

Svaty introduced a plan earlier this legislative session that would create a new use of water rights specifically for conservation. The program would be voluntary.

The plan would have ended the practice by farmers and ranchers who diverted water from rivers and streams to prevent losing their water rights. State law requires that anyone with such rights must use the water or face being declared abandoned.

"This is a pretty big shift," Svaty said. "It's time that we progress toward a system of management that allows producers wanting to conserve to have that opportunity."

However, the plan never got moving in the Legislature.

The Kansas Farm Bureau supports the idea of conservation in the drier, western third of the state, but opposed applying the plan statewide.

"We're not opposed to the conservation of water," said Steve Swafford, natural resource director for the farm bureau.

The concern was that it would shut off uses for areas where water is plentiful, meaning some landowners or municipalities could hoard the water.

Sen. Mark Taddiken, R-Clifton and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said some wealthy individual, corporation or municipality could purchase water rights and take it out of the system for decades.

"That would deny someone from using it now," Taddiken said. "There is only so much water to appropriate."

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick and chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, has asked that the issue be sent to an interim committee for further study. McGinn said understanding the complexity of water conservation could prevent legislators from implementing a problematic policy.

"I think (conservation) is a good thing," McGinn said. "The water is owned by the people of the state of Kansas."

McGinn and Taddiken agreed that the current practice of using water so the rights weren't lost was a wasteful practice.

Gov. Mark Parkinson has signed a bill that is viewed by some as a compromise. It allows producers to draw water on a year-by-year basis as long as diversion equipment, such as pumps, remained operational.

Svaty said the compromise doesn't go far enough or fast enough to conserve water.

"It's a much less significant change in water law," he said. "The world of water law is slow moving."