‘There’s still hope’: Kansas House advances bills to help save Ogallala Aquifer

By: - February 22, 2023 12:09 pm
Rep. Lindsay Vaughn

Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, appears Feb. 22, 2023, before the House to urge support for legislation aimed at holding Groundwater Management Districts accountable. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — House members celebrated a “historic” effort to address the state’s looming water crisis by advancing a pair of bills that would earmark funding for water-related projects and hold Groundwater Management Districts accountable for conservation efforts.

The chamber gave first-round approval to House Bill 2279, which deals with the GMDs, and House Bill 2302, which sets aside 1.231% of state sales tax revenue to support water plans. Both bills received bipartisan support.

Water issues have been brought into focus by the unimpeded depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, which farmers have used for decades to irrigate crops in western Kansas, and an ongoing drought. The House formed a water committee two years ago, but efforts to take meaningful action were torpedoed last year by large agricultural interests.

“This is a historic day,” said Rep. Ken Rahjes, R-Agra. ” This is the beginning of a journey that many of us have been on for years to get to where we are, hopefully secure a funding source for what really affects all of us.”

Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, said the aquifer will run out of water within her lifetime if nothing changes. But, she said, “there’s still hope.”

“We’re hoping to address this the Kansas way, through grit and compassion, and by bringing all people to the table to address this very serious concern, to conserve and sustain the aquifer for future generations and for the benefit of the entire state of Kansas,” Vaughn said.

Some parts of the aquifer have an estimated 10 or 20 years of water left. A state audit found efforts by GMDs to save the aquifer vary widely.

Rep. Ken Rahjes
Rep. Rahjes, R-Agra, says legislation to secure funding for state water projects is historic. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

HB 2279 would require GMDs to produce an annual written report on expenses and activities, with an explanation of how money was used to conserve groundwater and prevent deterioration of the aquifer. GMDs also would have to file action plans with state agencies.

Rep. Jason Goetz, of Dodge City, said the legislation will address concerns with transparency and accountability.

“It’s great to see people working together to solve this without mandating a solution,” Goetz said.

HB 2302 would provide about $50 million annually to support water projects across the state. It also pays down longstanding debt for Milford and Perry Lake reservoirs, and would allow the Kansas Water Authority to add 10 full-time positions for engineers, geologists, hydrologists, environmental scientists and those with similar areas of expertise.

The House planned to take final action on the two bills later this week. If adopted, they would go to the Senate for consideration.

In a committee hearing Monday, the chairman, Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City, praised committee members for their historic work.

“When when you go back to your home communities this next weekend, and you have legislative coffees or discussions within your community, we need to spread the word and explain what we’re trying to do here,” Minnix said.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.