Politics & Government

Water policy rises to new level in 2015 Kansas politics

Continued irrigation in western Kansas has led to declining water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer.
Continued irrigation in western Kansas has led to declining water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer. File photo

On election night in November, a smiling Gov. Sam Brownback outlined a handful of top priorities for his second term: education, poverty, health care.

And “I want to move forward on water,” the Kansas governor said.

Much of the state’s attention in 2015 will focus on budget cuts and tax policy, of course. Schools and public employee pensions will be on the table.

But the year is also expected to bring an intense, renewed focus on the state’s most vital resource. The severe drought in southwest Kansas, the ongoing demand for irrigation water and scary reports from bone-dry California are putting new pressure on policymakers to finalize a 50-year plan for protecting the state’s above- and below-ground water supplies.

A second draft of that plan was released for public comment in mid-November. Planning teams are being assembled for 14 Kansas regions, each tasked with proposing goals for water conservation and supply. By the end of 2015, state officials hope to lock in revised water use strategies — and, if possible, a broad blueprint of possible public funding for needed improvements.

“I would anticipate a lot of discussion,” said Tracy Streeter, head of the Kansas Water Office, pointing to a “critical mass” of interest in the subject.

Much of the talk will center on relatively quick responses to the drought and the rapid decline of the western Ogallala aquifer, the ancient underground water source now drying at an unprecedented rate.

The draft 50-year plan suggests a variety of strategies: conservation, reuse of water, better management techniques, more drought-resistant crops.

But it also hints at the still-explosive idea of moving billions of gallons of water from water-rich areas to the parched west. “Allow for the transfer of water supplies between basins where feasible and cost effective,” the draft report proposes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pondered just such a plan in 1982. It envisioned a new 13,000-acre reservoir in northeast Kansas, where excess Missouri River water would be stored for eventual transfer to a second reservoir in the western part of the state.

Even the mention of the idea sends shudders through politicians in other states. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon wrote Brownback in 2013, urging him to drop the idea.

But the corps — at the request of Kansas officials — continued to study the proposal, and in early 2015 it will release its findings.

Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, head of the corps, said the report would outline options for policymakers, including construction hurdles and potential cost. Drought here and across the country has provoked a new urgency with his engineers, he said.

“We’re very concerned about drought at all levels,” he said. “We’re not as advanced as we are in flood-risk management. We don’t have the tools.”

But he also predicts difficulty finding support in Washington for building and operating more than 300 miles of water pipeline when the corps already faces a huge backlog of flood control and harbor improvement projects.

The 1982 study said a trans-basin pipeline would cost $4 billion in late-1970s dollars. The new study is expected to predict an even higher cost.

“We have to do the science,” Bostick said. “We have to present options to our congressional leaders and the American people, and to local leaders, and then the local people have to help make a decision.”

Kansas, of course, faces its own budget problems. Any major investment in a water transfer project is probably decades away.

And the political hurdles won’t go away anytime soon, either.

“Is part of that river at Kansas’ disposal for use? Absolutely,” Streeter said. “But there’s going to have to be some serious conversations about what that is, and under what circumstances that water is available, when you start looking at all the water interests up and down the basin.”

There are other objections to a trans-basin proposal, known by some as the Kansas Aqueduct Project. In August, the Sierra Club in Kansas called the project a scheme.

“Sustainability, the stated objective of the water vision, requires living within one’s means,” it said. “The proposed aqueduct is an excuse not to.”

Instead, the club recommended restricting water consumption and irrigation to the yearly recharge of underground sources. That would be a difficult standard: By some estimates, 90 percent of the water now taken from the Ogallala aquifer is lost to evaporation and crop growth.

“In the Ogallala,” Streeter said, “the only thing we have any control over is, conserve and extend what’s out there.”

But there are smaller projects that could help improve water supplies, including dredging clogged reservoirs and upgrading water treatment infrastructure. The 50-year plan is expected to address those and other concerns.

Even those issues might be controversial.

Kansans use more than 1.6 trillion gallons of water a year. But water demands are much higher in western Kansas, where per capita usage is 274 gallons a day, compared with 98 gallons in eastern Kansas.

The difference is measured in drought and irrigation needs. But the dramatic difference in water use can make it harder to develop a statewide consensus on spending for water projects and improvements.

“We’re really blessed in eastern Kansas,” said Joe Vaughan, a board member for Johnson County Water District No. 1. “Like so many other issues … what goes on in another part of Kansas, and their needs and requirements, varies from region to region.”

Whether the final report will propose tougher standards, or mandatory restrictions, will become clear in the coming year. Kansans will be watching, as will their newly re-elected governor.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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