Hope springs from Kansas governor’s proposal to restore water funding

By: - January 28, 2022 10:03 am

Gov. Laure Kelly addresses Connie Owen, director of the Kansas Water Office, during a meeting of the Kansas Water Authority on Thursday at the Ramada Inn in downtown Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Connie Owen, director of Kansas Water Office, says the governor’s recommendation to restore funding for water projects has given her organization momentum as it considers a wide range of needs.

Legislators since 2008 have not allocated the full $8 million that is supposed to go toward a State Water Plan, established in 1989. During the past 14 years, Owen said, the state has shorted the plan by $80 million, jeopardizing efforts to address concerns with reservoirs, groundwater and water quality across the state.

This year, Gov. Laura Kelly has proposed fully funding the water plan. If lawmakers agree, that would mean allocating $6 million from the state general fund and $2 million from an economic development fund.

Kelly told members of the Kansas Water Authority during a meeting Thursday in Topeka that she was excited about a budget surplus that would allow the state to meet its obligations.

“I know there are a lot of water projects,” Kelly said. “The 8 million goes a long way, but not long enough for many of the things that need to get done.”

She said she also anticipates using federal money from the infrastructure package on “expense projects in the world of water.”

Gov. Laura Kelly says the $8 million needed to fully fund the State Water Plan will go a long way, but not long enough. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The water authority, which is part of the Water Office, develops the water plan and manages available cash. Owen said the annual allotment hasn’t changed since the mid-1990s. If adjusted for inflation, she said, the state would have to pay closer to $20 million annually.

The issues are profound. In western Kansas, depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer threatens the livelihood of agriculture producers.

“It’s already too far gone,” Owen said if the aquifer. “There are areas that are beyond use.”

She said the state could invest in innovative technologies that help agriculture producers make a living. For example: Farmers could use a soil moisture probe to determine whether they need to irrigate on a given day.

Producers in the Colby area who chose to voluntarily reduce water use, Owen said, have seen profitability increase because they are paying less for nutrients and power used for pumps. The water plan could help fund programs to help other producers make a similar transition, Owen said.

In eastern Kansas,  the biggest issue involves the silting of reservoirs. Accumulation of silt happens naturally as water flows into the reservoirs, presenting an array of challenges.

Tuttle Creek Lake, the flagship reservoir, has lost about 40% of its capacity, Owen said.

“When you have your silt filling up reservoirs and losing storage capacity, well, you’re going to lose the amount of water you had access to,” Owen said. “You will not have the flexibility to store water in a flood and help reduce flood damage. You will not have the capacity to store water when you can to prepare for a drought.

“Not to mention you just will not have enough supply to meet the needs of the people who live here. You want to turn on your tap and you want the water to come on. If the reservoirs can’t hold enough water, that’s going to be a problem.”

Mike Armstrong, who represents a water district in Johnson County, asked the governor to consider using a chunk of the state’s surplus to cover debt the state owes on federal reservoirs — Perry, Milford and Hillsdale. There are about $112 million in outstanding obligations that could be retired with a one-time payment.

Kelly said she was unaware of the debt or the interest that continues to accrue.

“That drives me absolutely insane,” the governor said.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.