Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly greets staff from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday in Manhattan, where she spoke at the Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas. (Submitted)
MANHATTAN — Kansans have “a responsibility to do something” about the state’s rapidly depleting water supply and the risk of widespread contamination, Gov. Laura Kelly said at a conference Wednesday in Manhattan.
“Waiting for a miracle is not an option,” she told a crowd of about 500 at the 11th annual Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas.
Kelly, who won reelection earlier this month, said that for decades lawmakers have kicked the can down the road on solving the state’s water crisis. She pledged to stop that.
“I give you my word that protecting our water supply will remain a top priority in Topeka over the next four years,” Kelly said. “I refuse to allow the can to be kicked any further down the road.”
In Kansas, the arid west meets the humid east. While eastern Kansas can be susceptible to flooding, streams and rivers in western Kansas have largely dried up. The western part of the state gets its water from underground aquifers — the Ogallala and the High Plains. The Ogallala Aquifer stretches from South Dakota to Texas and is among the world’s largest underground water supplies.
But for decades, western Kansas has been using more water from the Ogallala each year than the aquifer can recharge. That imbalance means the water supply has been depleting for more than half a century.
Parts of western Kansas supplied by the Ogallala have just 10 years of water left.
And if it dries up, as one legislator said this spring, communities that lose access to water may fold up and blow away.
“But if we want to continue that record-breaking economic growth, we need an adequate water supply,” Kelly said Wednesday.
Kelly acknowledged the structural imbalance, saying the rate at which Kansas is using water now is unsustainable. And she said Kansans didn’t need this year’s severe drought to remind them of the urgent situation.
The responsibility to conserve water in Kansas has been largely borne by local communities and officials, and an effort earlier this year to overhaul the state’s approach to water met resistance from farmers, ranchers and groundwater managers in western Kansas.
Legislation that would have established more state oversight of water was gutted in a Kansas House committee and never received a floor vote.
But Kelly noted that in her first term, the state updated and fully funded its water plan for the first time in more than a decade.
“The Ogallala Aquifer is one of our most precious resources, and preserving it is crucial for the sake of future generations and communities across Kansas, not to mention the agriculture community that forms the backbone of our economy,” Kelly said.
She added: “I am determined to build on the progress my administration has made thus far in protecting our water.”
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