House bill calls for western Kansas to create plans to save the Ogallala Aquifer

‘Either all GMDs need to start working in the right direction, or the state is going to have to get involved,’ says the bill’s sponsor

By: - February 9, 2023 12:22 pm
A center-pivot irrigation system is viewed in a field

A center-pivot irrigation system sits idle near Colby, Kansas, in December. Lawmakers are considering a bill they hope will spur local efforts to conserve groundwater in parched western Kansas. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — For half a century, groundwater managers in western Kansas have been charged with slowing the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer.

Fifty years later, parts of the aquifer are nearing crisis, and legislators want action.

“We’re here today so that we don’t become what the Colorado River Valley or Central California looks like,” said Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City, who chairs the House Water Committee.

Legislators on the committee are considering a bill introduced by the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, that would require groundwater management districts to report information on their spending to the Legislature each year. And it would require that GMDs make a plan to conserve the aquifer.

Vaughn, who is from Overland Park, said she was trying to thread the needle between state and local control.

Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, attends a Future Caucus event in January. She is sponsoring legislation meant to spur local efforts to conserve groundwater in western Kansas. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“Either all GMDs need to start working in the right direction, or the state is going to have to get involved, which is what most people want to avoid,” she said after a committee hearing on the bill Thursday.

Kansans began pumping water from the Ogallala Aquifer, the country’s largest underground water source, in droves following World War II, transforming the arid western part of the state into an agricultural powerhouse. Less than 100 years later, the water is running out.

Parts of the aquifer have just 10 or 20 years of water left.

Kansas has known about the decline of the Ogallala for decades. But amid a staggering drought, the issue is getting renewed attention from the Legislature, Gov. Laura Kelly and water regulators.

The Kansas Water Authority recommended the state change its de facto policy of draining the aquifer for short-term economic gain. Kelly has supported fully funding the aquifer and pledged shortly after winning reelection in November that “protecting our water supply will remain a top priority in Topeka over the next four years.”

And members of the House Water Committee are looking for legislative solutions. 

Members on Thursday heard testimony from the state’s leading agricultural groups, the GMDs and scientists on Vaughn’s bill. Almost all of them supported the legislation, meant to bring more transparency and urgency to the GMDs.

It was a stark contrast compared to last year, when a comprehensive water reform bill was gutted in committee following, sponsors suspected, intervention by the agricultural groups. The legislator who proposed the amendment gutting that bill then left to become president of the Kansas Farm Bureau.

On Thursday, agricultural groups made suggestions for some tweaks but said they largely supported the legislation.

Aaron Popelka, a lobbyist for the Kansas Livestock Association, said the group had concerns some GMDs weren’t doing enough to encourage conservation. That, he worried, would increase the likelihood of state mandates — something his organization hopes to avoid.

“We think this bill strikes a good balance, providing some carrot, if you will, for the locals to get involved,” Popelka said.

And two of the three groundwater management districts that sit on the Ogallala Aquifer supported the efforts.

Shannon Kenyon runs GMD 4 in northwest Kansas, which is the only GMD so far to have a “local enhanced management area,” a conservation plan requiring irrigators to cut back on their pumping, across the whole district. 

“GMD 4 did it and will continue to do it to extend the usable life of the Ogallala Aquifer and to support the economic, rural, local prosperity of western Kansas,” Kenyon said.

The bill’s chief opponent was Groundwater Management District 3 in southwest Kansas, which has some of the largest aquifer declines, according to the Kansas Geological Survey. 

GMD 3’s director, Mark Rude, acknowledged irrigators are consuming the aquifer. 

“No shock — it was planned that way,” Rude said, referring to decades of state policy that favored draining the aquifer.

Minnix, the committee chairman, said members would likely vote next week.

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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.