‘Shooting themselves in the foot’: Committee guts Kansas bill to protect water

Legislators are working to make changes to the state’s water management as parts of western Kansas risk running dry

By: - March 1, 2022 1:12 pm

Rep. Ron Highland and Rep. Lindsay Vaughn have championed a bill to overhaul Kansas’ management of water resources. A House committee gutted it Tuesday. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The prospects for a major overhaul of Kansas water programs dimmed Tuesday after a legislative committee gutted a reform bill meant to give cabinet-level importance to a near crisis in Kansas.

“What ended up happening is we kicked the can down the road again,” said Rep. Ron Highland, chairman of the House Water Committee. 

For more than a year, Highland’s committee has studied the myriad water issues facing Kansas. In some areas of western Kansas, the aquifer is expected to dry out in the next 10 or 20 years. Some small towns are out of compliance with drinking water rules, and upgrades would bankrupt them.

Committee leaders proposed a complete restructuring of state departments handling water issues and establishment of a new secretary position, vaulting water concerns into the governor’s cabinet.

But the bill put them at odds with Kansas’ largest water user: agriculture. And the state’s agriculture industry, committee leaders suspected, was responsible for an amendment proposed Tuesday to strike nearly all of the proposals.

The committee passed an amended bill that would carve out sales tax revenue to fund water projects and require some additional reporting from local officials overseeing groundwater management in southern and western Kansas. The amendment stripped the restructuring of state agencies and other reforms meant to give voice to water issues and give officials overseeing water independence from agricultural interests.

Highland, a Wamego Republican, and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Lindsay Vaughn of Overland Park, said they were frustrated by the outcome.

Vaughn said they are concerned about the depletion of groundwater in western Kansas. She said taking sales tax revenue, largely generated in eastern Kansas, and spending it without rethinking the way water is managed and protected wouldn’t change much.

“We’re just throwing more money at the problem,” she said.

Highland said he knew the amendment was coming after the state’s agricultural industry groups attempted to lobby him. He suspected it came directly from the industry.

“They’ve decided to fight any change at all, and I think the future, unfortunately … we’re having urban vs. rural discussions,” Highland said.

Kent Askren, public policy director for the Kansas Farm Bureau, objected to the notion the organization was opposed to any kind of change. He said the organization laid out its priorities before the bill was revealed and bemoaned that the bill text was revealed just a few days before hearings began.

“We want to see progress made because our members’ very livelihood and even ability to live in those areas depends upon having good water policy,” Askren said.

Rep. Ron Highland, right, and Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, center, listen as Rep. Joe Newland explains an amendment he proposed to gut a bill aimed at overhauling the way Kansas manages water. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Newland, a Neodesha Republican and former Kansas Farm Bureau board member, did not immediately return a request for comment. 

Overhauling water

The original House Bill 2686 would have established a new Kansas Department of Water and Environment to replace fractured departments dealing with water under the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the Kansas Water Authority and other agencies.

Highland has said having a cabinet-level secretary focused on water could have helped prevent more than a decade of underfunding of the state’s water plan.

In the past almost 15 years, Highland said, water projects have been underfunded to the tune of about $85 million.

Gov. Laura Kelly has proposed fully funding the state’s part of water programs — $8 million — for the first time in more than a decade.

But fully addressing the state’s ever-smaller supply of water will take more like $55 million per year, according to a task force convened under former Gov. Sam Brownback.

The original bill would have increased fees for water users that haven’t changed in about 40 years and levy new ones on some irrigators to raise another $8 million per year.

The most controversial element of the original bill would have given more power to residents residing within groundwater management districts who do not hold water rights. Right now, to serve on the board of a groundwater management district, someone must own at least 40 contiguous acres or a right to withdraw water on their property.

Highland and water law experts have said requiring property ownership to vote on water issues is likely unconstitutional.

In a competing amendment to the one that passed, Highland proposed setting aside the groundwater management district reforms for now. But he said GMDs have been charged for decades with halting the decline of water in aquifers in arid western Kansas.

“With the exception of one, not much has been done,” he said.

Askren said he hoped even those who were disappointed with Tuesday’s outcome would get behind the gutted bill because it provides more funds for water projects.

“I haven’t heard anybody yet who doesn’t want more funding,” Askren said. “… If that’s true, then why would we not all get behind that and try to push this past the finish line?”

Vaughn said the committee was put in the position of working in opposition to the state’s agricultural industry — a politically powerful group of organizations. She noted farmers would be the most affected if water runs out in western Kansas.

“The very people this impacts have 10, 20, 30 years left of water before it’s no longer going to exist,” Vaughn said.

She added: “I really feel that they are shooting themselves in the foot.”

Highland said the amended bill doesn’t do much because it eliminated most of the underlying proposals.

“I’m not the loser; I think the state of Kansas is the loser today,” Highland said.

An earlier version of this article misspelled Kent Askren’s name. It has been updated. 

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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.