‘Nonrenewable resource’: As western Kansas dries up, Legislature revisits water policy

The House Water Committee spent last year studying water management in Kansas. This year, members will look for funding.

By: - January 9, 2022 3:59 am

The dry bed of the Arkansas River near the Santa Fe Trail crossing at Cimarron. The Ogallala aquifer groundwater levels in much of western Kansas started dropping in the 1950s as pumping increased, according to the Kansas Geological Survey. (Max McCoy)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For the better part of a decade, the drinking water supply for a small southwest Kansas town was almost constantly contaminated with unsafe levels of radium, a radioactive element that can cause cancer.

The city of Lakin found unsafe levels of uranium in its water in 2007, said Mike Heinitz, the city’s administrator. For years, it sent quarterly notices telling residents they could be consuming high levels of uranium before opening a multimillion dollar treatment facility in 2015.

Now, Lakin’s water meets federal standards. But neighboring Deerfield, downstream on the Arkansas River, might have to pipe in water from Lakin for the same reason.

Uranium and sulfate flow into Kansas from Colorado on the Arkansas River. Quality of the water in that part of the state is expected only to get worse as groundwater supplies are depleted, causing concentrations of the contaminates to rise.

It’s one of myriad water issues facing Kansas that members of the House Water Committee studied in informational meetings last year. This legislative session, committee members will look to reorganize the Kansas agencies that deal in water and identify long-needed funding for projects.

“We learned that it’s not critical, but it’s a situation we need to deal with and we need to have a plan put in place now,” said Rep. Ron Highland, a Wamego Republican who chairs the committee. “And we can’t wait, quite frankly.”

Lakin residents’ water bills doubled, Heinitz said, to pay for the uranium treatment. The High Plains aquifer, which supplies water to huge swaths of Kansas, is fast depleting, threatening farmers’ access to water and, by extension, the state’s largest industry. And in eastern Kansas, reservoirs that provide drinking water are filling with sediment, forcing Kansas to consider costly dredging or come up with another way to protect residents’ access to drinking water.

Highland said the state has, for years, vastly underfunded projects needed to ensure Kansans — and Kansas farmers — have the water they need to survive.

“The funding is a little trickier,” Highland said, “because we’re up against education and all the social programs in our state. And there’s just not enough money to go around.”

Highland didn’t say how the committee might restructure the 16 state agencies that play some role in regulating water quality and quantity. He has some ideas but wants to discuss them with colleagues.

But he said he has spoken with Lt. Gov. David Toland about identifying federal funds to help with some water projects.

Uranium in southwest Kansas 

Uranium and sulfate likely have been flowing from Colorado to Kansas for more than 100 years, according to the Kansas Geological Survey.

In 2009, the average uranium content in the Arkansas River at the Colorado-Kansas border was double the standard set for drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency.

And because, for decades, the High Plains Aquifer in western Kansas has been depleting, the water entering the state on the Arkansas River doesn’t get far. The riverbed is nearly always dry from just upstream of Garden City east to Larned or Great Bend, said Don Whittemore, a senior scientific fellow emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey.

That means the contamination that comes over from Colorado stays in the groundwater of southwest Kansas, building the concentration over time.

“It’s kind of like a positive feedback loop where it keeps getting more and more concentrated,” said Erin Seybold, an assistant scientist for the survey. “As you continue to lose water, the salt product that is left behind becomes more and more concentrated.”

At this point, Whittemore said, the uranium isn’t found in high concentrations in the grains grown in the area, though it exists in higher concentrations in the roots of crops. As salt and uranium accumulate in the closed water basin, he said, there needs to be more study.

“Because if we’re going to accumulate this in a closed basin, well, does that mean in the future these crops start to get higher so that they become a concern?” Whittemore said.

For the last couple of years, the Kansas Geological Survey has been analyzing samples to update its understanding of where the uranium is concentrated in the area.

Access to water

The High Plains Aquifer has lost more than 60% of its depth in some parts of far western Kansas, particularly the western third of the aquifer, known as the Ogallala Aquifer.

Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, of Overland Park, serves as the House Water Committee’s ranking Democrat. She called the Ogallala Aquifer “more or less a nonrenewable resource.”

“So the water that we have in the aquifer is all that we essentially get, and it is hugely influential for our agricultural industry,” Vaughn said.

In some places, only 20 years of supply remain.

“When you’re in Garden City and you take the bridge over the Ark River, it’s completely dried up,” Vaughn said. “… Just visually, it’s very apparent how the lack of water is present in the daily lives of that community and how it’s an increasing concern, especially for the western part of our state.”

Some farmers in western Kansas have begun using probes underground to assess the soil moisture and irrigate more strategically. Highland said they have managed to save water while still maintaining a good crop yield, meaning their profits have increased.

Highland said he would like to see a cost-sharing program to help more farmers install that technology.

Meanwhile, the wetter eastern part of the state has its own problems.

Reservoirs that supply drinking water, like Tuttle Creek Lake, are filling up with sediment carried from upstream and settling in the dammed reservoirs.

Tuttle Creek Lake has lost about half of its storage capacity since it opened 60 years ago. It’s too large for the state to dredge, Highland said. He hopes the state can fund a pilot program this year to stir up the silt in Tuttle Creek Lake and send it down river as it would flow if it weren’t for the dam that formed the reservoir.

The year ahead

In Kansas, 16 state agencies — from the Adjutant General’s Office to the Kansas Forest Service and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment — have overlapping authority over water quality, research, flood management and other issues.

On top of those, federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Army Corps of Engineers have jurisdiction over water.

Highland said that creates the potential for substantial overlap and confusion for citizens.

One of his priorities for the Water Committee will be restructuring the state departments to streamline water policy.

Beyond that, Vaughn and Highland said water priorities in Kansas had been underfunded to the tune of more than $70 million in recent decades.

A task force in 2017 said it would take about $55 million per year to fund a long-term vision for Kansas water management developed under former Gov. Sam Brownback.

“We are just barely scratching the surface of projects that need to be implemented,” Vaughn said.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.