Audit finds western Kansas keeps losing water, despite local efforts

Evaluation covers groundwater management districts, most of which are meant to conserve water in the Ogallala Aquifer.

By: - February 15, 2023 1:27 pm

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. — Local agencies in western Kansas have had decades to slow the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer, but most areas had less water last year than they did a decade ago, according to an audit released Wednesday.

The audit, which evaluated groundwater management districts, or GMDs, was released as a staggering drought and attention from the governor and Legislature bring renewed attention to the near-crisis state of water in western Kansas. 

Auditors found the agencies had little direction from the state and limited authority. 

“While they appear to operate within their current expectations, their overall role in addressing the state’s water situation is limited,” the audit says. 

Western Kansas sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest underground store of fresh water in the country. After World War II, farmers started pumping that water to the surface to irrigate crops, creating a booming agricultural sector and forming small towns on the high plains. 

For decades, they pumped water like it would never run out. But in the 1970s, as water levels declined, the state passed legislation allowing for the creation of GMDs, tasked with conserving groundwater. 

Fifty years later, only some of the five GMDs had documented success, the audit found. 

“The districts do not consistently monitor the effectiveness of their programs,” the audit says. 

The GMDs also vary widely in their priorities. While those in west-central and northwest Kansas have created “local enhanced management areas,” or LEMAs, to limit groundwater use, Southwest Kansas’ GMD is the only one focused on importing new water. 

Last year, the GMD in Southwest Kansas trucked 6,000 gallons of water from the Missouri River in northeast Kansas to southwest Kansas as a “proof of concept” for a proposed aqueduct to pump water from the Missouri River in Nebraska.  

Auditors struggled to evaluate the GMDs’ spending. Most primarily spend on salaries and benefits, as well as lobbying and legal expenses. 

“But we could not determine the impact the programs had on the districts’ water concerns,” auditors wrote. 

On average, the audit found that 75% of the more than $6 million the five GMDs spent in 2021 went to the districts’ areas of concern, including water depletion. 

Two of the districts included comments in response to the audit.

GMD 3 in Southwest Kansas noted it has used federal funds to pay irrigators not to pump water, evaluated new irrigation systems and looked at treatment systems for municipalities with high levels of uranium in their drinking water, among other tasks. 

“While it is true that groundwater management districts are only allowed to play a limited advisory role in administering the state’s water resources, it is not true that our role in water management is necessarily small,” the district wrote. 

The audit, performed by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit, was requested by Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, and former Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, who led the House Water Committee in 2021 and 2022. They pushed unsuccessfully for an omnibus bill meant to overhaul water regulation in Kansas. 

This year, Vaughn is again the ranking member on the committee, which is chaired by Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City. 

Vaughn is sponsoring legislation that would require the GMDs to report more information to the state, to identify areas at high risk for depletion of the aquifer and come up with plans to conserve water. 

The bill is similar to one of the recommendations from the audit. It says districts should “develop written policies that describe when and how they will revise their management programs.”

Unlike the bill Vaughn and Highland pushed last year, the legislation has widespread buy-in from farm and livestock groups as well as the GMDs. GMD 3 in Southeast Kansas is the most vocal opponent. 

The House Water Committee is expected to vote on the bill — and one dedicating revenue to water projects — Thursday.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.