Kansas House committee advances bills to conserve water in Ogallala Aquifer

The two pieces of legislation dedicate funding to water projects and impose new requirements on groundwater managers to come up with a plan to protect water

By: - February 16, 2023 10:49 am

The Kansas House Water Committee passed two bills to provide funding to projects and push local officials to conserve the Ogallala Aquifer. (Bill Johnson/Kansas Geological Survey)

Members of a Kansas House committee on Thursday passed legislation meant to push officials in western Kansas to come up with ideas to conserve water in the disappearing Ogallala Aquifer.

The legislation — along with a bill dedicating sales tax revenue to fund water projects — passed the House Water Committee on a voice vote with little opposition. It now moves to the full Kansas House of Representatives for consideration.

Both bills represent a leap forward for the committee, which began studying water issues in Kansas and suggesting possible solutions to the near-crisis state of the Ogallala two years ago.

“We think we have a very good start on this issue,” said Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City, chairman of the House Water Committee. “We’ve got a long ways to go. But this is a really good beginning.”

The Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches across several Plains states, is the largest underground store of fresh water in the country. Following World War II, farmers began pumping water from the aquifer in droves to irrigate crops in arid western Kansas.

Less than a century later, the water is running out. Some parts of the aquifer have an estimated 10 or 20 years left. And a state audit found efforts by local groundwater management districts, or GMDs, to save the aquifer vary widely.

One of the bills, sponsored by Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, the ranking minority member of the committee, would require GMDs report more information on their finances and conservation efforts to the state. They would also have to identify priority areas of their territories and submit plans to the state to conserve groundwater.

“We’re hoping that we’re empowering groundwater management districts to identify the most important areas that need to be addressed in relation to conserving and extending the life of the Ogallala Aquifer and then coming up with plans to do that,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn offered a compromise amendment during the discussion Thursday that clarified some points of the bill at the suggestion of GMDs and agricultural groups.

The bill had wide support, but one committee member, Rep. Brett Fairchild, R-St. John, said he would vote against the bill because of concern he heard from GMDs that the bill creates “paperwork and cost.”

Rep. Kenny Titus, R-Manhattan, said the bill left a lot of flexibility for the GMDs to come up with plans based on local input. He said he would support it.

“I think this bill strikes a good balance between moving the state as a whole forward protecting natural resources but leaving the crux of this in local control,” Titus said.

The other bill, sponsored by Minnix, carves off 1.231% of sales tax revenue to fund the state’s water plan. In the next fiscal year, that amounts to a projected $54.1 million. Minnix’s bill also creates other transfers to fund water projects.

That bill also received wide support. Rep. Cyndi Howerton, R-Wichita, said the state had shorted water projects to the tune of $84.5 million since 1991.

Several members said the funding bill was a historic step forward for solving Kansas’ water issues.

Rep. Doug Blex, R-Independence, called the legislation “a legacy for all of us.”

“I am really proud to be a part of the milestone that this committee has done here,” Blex said.

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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.