‘We can’t wait 15 years’: Legislative committee works to overhaul Kansas water policy
Time to protect water in Kansas is running out.
Parts of the far western Kansas aquifer may only have 10 years of water left. Small towns struggle to provide clean drinking waterand upgrading their facilities would put them out of business.
If the state wants to preserve its water resources, it must act quickly, say proponents of an overhaul of state water regulations.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘crisis,’ but our situation in our state is serious,” said Rep. Ron Highland, chairman of the House Water Committee.
For years, the state did not fully fund its body of water. He has failed to secure federal grants to help water projects because they require state matching. Governor Laura Kelly has proposed in its budget that the State finance its share for water programs — $8 million — for the first time in over a decade.
But fully tending to the state’s ever-shrinking water supply will require more than $55 million a year, according to a task force convened under former Governor Sam Brownback. It will also need, says Highland, a cabinet secretary who is at the table when budget priorities are set.
Highland led the House Water Committee through a series of studies, site visits and, now, an effort to completely overhaul the way Kansas thinks about its water resources.
“One of the issues we noticed when we went through all of this is that water programs have been underfunded for years,” Highland said, “and part of the reason for that is that you don’t have no seat at the table when budget discussions are taking place.
Environmental groups, municipal water utilities and water experts have praised the committee’s efforts to make water a concern in Kansas, allocate funds to the issue and clarify a confusing web of government departments.
Zack Pistora, a lobbyist with the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, called the bill the most transformative water policy bill in more than 30 years.
“(If) you stand up for this through the Legislature this year, (it) will create a legacy for our generation, current generations, but generations to come for Kansas,” Pistora said. “I think we can’t lose sight of that.”
Big Changes in Kansas Water Policy
House Bill 2686 would elevate water issues to the governor’s cabinet by creating a new Kansas Department of Water and Environment. Currently, water issues are hosted by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the Kansas Water Authority, and other state and federal agencies.
Worse, Highland said, is that Kansas missed out on an unknown amount of federal grants because it didn’t pay its share of the projects.
“We left a lot of federal funds on the table,” Highland said. “We never got those funds because we couldn’t match them.”
Highland said the secretary’s office would also serve as a “clearinghouse” for all water-related information, which can be difficult to obtain due to the disparate nature of departments.
The bill would also increase fees for water users that haven’t changed in 40 years and impose new ones on some irrigators. The committee estimates that these fees would bring in more than $8 million each year. Coupled with the Governor’s commitment to fund the state’s share of water priorities, this would mean a large increase in spending on projects to conserve water in western Kansas and the quality of water throughout the state.
The most controversial element of the bill would enact more standards for groundwater management districts, which govern water use and conservation in south-central and western Kansas. The five districts varied widely in their water conservation efforts.
Under the bill, they would be required to provide the state with full reports of their revenues and expenses and file a conservation plan for approval by the state’s chief water engineer.
Highland acknowledged the refusal of groundwater management district officials who believe they are doing an effective job.
“But by the same token, they’ve had decades now, and the water table is falling,” Highland said. “So we have to put the pressure on that.”
The committee’s Democratic filing echoed those concerns.
“These entities have been around for 50 years … and we still haven’t seen much progress in some of these very critical areas,” said Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, of Overland Park.
The legislation would also give more power to residents residing in groundwater management districts that do not hold water rights. Currently, to serve on the board of a groundwater management district, someone must have at least 40 contiguous acres or a water right to take water from the property.
“Tie ownership of property rights with voting – it smacks of the 1860s a bit,” Highland said.
Burke Griggs, professor of water law at Washburn University, warned that the current arrangement is likely unconstitutional.
Several officials from groundwater management districts decried the proposal as an excess on the part of the state and urged lawmakers to trust local officials.
Brett Oelke, president of Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 4 — hailed for its success in stopping and even reversing aquifer depletion — said municipalities could qualify to vote on the council there. But he said 98% of water use in the district is for agriculture and those stakeholders should be represented on the council.
Tim Boese, director of Equus Beds Groundwater Management District No. 2, said the council of 15 has had a municipal utility representative for 28 of its 30 years on the council. And he challenged the idea that the advice was biased towards farmers who irrigate their crops using groundwater.
“They absolutely should have a say, but when it comes to elections, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for someone who isn’t a water user or a landowner…to control then the property rights of others, those water rights and their lands,” he said.
Some members of the state’s rural areas committee pushed back against the idea of interfering with the work of the districts and suggested delaying the proposed fee for a few years.
“I’m a farmer myself and I hate rules, regulations, and yet eventually I’ll get to the right place, and that’s why I think we need to go a lot slower on this,” Rep Boyd said. Orr, a Republican Fowler. “…I think we have to reconsider the fact that the farmers, the Kansans, generally do things right; it just takes us a little time.
Several of Kansas’ major agricultural groups — the Kansas Farm Bureau, the Kansas Livestock Association and the Kansas Corngrowers Association — have also opposed the bill, raising the possibility that the committee will have to do battle with the larger industry of state to pass a bill.
Aaron Popelka, vice president of legal and governmental affairs for the Kansas Livestock Association, praised the committee for holding hearings and researching Kansas water issues over the past year, but said that the window for reviewing the bill was too narrow.
“It’s kind of a process where we have to have concepts and language months in advance, no less than two weeks before the turnaround,” Popelka said.
Popelka said the bill was unnecessary and called it “a solution in search of a problem”. He said the bill would give the state’s chief water engineer too much unilateral control over groundwater management districts and opposed the increased fees. He noted that the portion of the state water body would be fully funded for the first time in years.
“Maybe we should see that we have the ability to spend that money and use it right before we raise fees,” Popelka said.
Vaughn noted that parts of the aquifer in western Kansas only have 10 to 30 years of useful life.
“If a solution isn’t found or if these issues aren’t resolved, then those members are going to potentially lose those livelihoods if they don’t have a water source,” Vaughn said, “so I think that it’s misleading to say this is looking for a problem because the problem exists.
The nearly 300-page bill is exempt from a deadline requiring all legislation to pass its original chamber by the end of the week, but even so, the overhaul of Kansas’ approach to water is a heavy lift. Some lawmakers urged the committee to slow down.
Highland proposed removing provisions that change how groundwater management districts are managed but still require them to report more information to the state. He said the committee could request that an interim committee consider this issue after the end of the legislative session, and he proposed seeking an audit of districts and an opinion from the attorney general on the legality of election procedures.
Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, a Prairie village Democrat, said he was sensitive to concerns about agriculture, but it’s important to act quickly to help small towns struggling with clean water and waste.
“We can’t wait 15 years to look at drinking water and how we deal with waste water and so on. “, did he declare. “It may be too late by then.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the service requirements of a District Groundwater Management Board and incorrectly quoted Representative Lindsay Vaughn. It has been updated.