New laws increase accountability for Kansas water districts, set aside conservation funding

Gov. Laura Kelly announces signing of two water bills into law

By: - April 20, 2023 1:28 pm

The western Kansas landscape is drying up due to diminishing water levels. Kansas legislators took steps toward addressing the issue this session. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly signed two water laws, providing millions of dollars in state funding for water conservation in a bipartisan effort to tackle drought across the state. 

Western Kansas has used the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest underground store of freshwater in the United States, to supply agricultural irrigation for decades. With water levels declining in the 1970s, five groundwater management districts were created statewide to monitor and conserve the resource. 

Recent audits have shown mixed results with these districts and little accountability for the state’s falling water levels. To fix growing concerns about drought, legislators proposed giving more funding to water projects and increasing GMD accountability. 

“We must protect the water that has powered our booming farming economy for generations,” Kelly said. “I’m proud that Republicans and Democrats were able to come together to make progress on this pressing crisis, investing a historic level of resources into major water storage projects.”

Kelly announced the signing of Senate Substitute for HB 2302 Thursday, a law that expands funding for the State Water Plan and creates two other funds for water infrastructure projects and water assistance.

Starting July 1, 2023, $35 million will be transferred from the State General Fund to the SWPF, with this amount going to the fund for the next five years. Before the law was enacted, the State Water Plan Fund received $8 million annually. 

Out of the $35 million, $12 million is set aside for a newly established Water Projects Grant Fund. The Kansas Water Office will use that fund to provide grants and streamline the water project grant process, along with updating reporting requirements. 

The second fund, called the Water Technical Assistance Fund, will use $5 million from the SWPF to provide grants for engineering, management and other technical assistance in the development of water infrastructure plans. Another part of the bill allocates $52 million to pay off debt for the Milford and Perry Reservoirs.

The legislation passed 38-1 in the Senate and 122-1 in the House. 

Rep. Jim Minnix, a Scott City Republican and head of the 2022 Special Committee on Water, said the legislation would help the Kansas Water Office work on the state’s water needs. 

“Water is one of our most vital natural resources and has been taken for granted far too long,” Minnix said. “Senate Substitute for HB 2302 is an effort to more fully fund the Kansas Water Office to address water quantity and water quality. This will benefit all Kansans — rural, urban, Republican, Democrats, younger, and older.” 

Kelly also announced the signing of House Bill 2279, a bill requiring the five groundwater management districts statewide to submit annual reports to the Legislature outlining their budget, finances and activities. The districts, which oversee management and conservation of groundwater resources in the areas with the most aquifer use, would also send reports to the Kansas Department of Agriculture on conservation efforts and agricultural water usage.

The legislation also requires these districts to identify problems with water preservation in their areas and come up with action plans to address the issues using feedback from their local communities. 

“These bills will provide the state tools it desperately needs to address our water crisis,” said Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park. “Together, we are committed to ensuring access to this crucial resource for communities large and small, and for the future generations of Kansas.”

The House approved the bill 116-6 and the Senate voted 34-6 in favor of the legislation.

Kelly announced the signing of four additional bills Thursday. 

Senate Bill 44 creates the Kansas Financial Institutions Information Security Act. The bill, which passed the House 114-9 and the Senate 36-4, is meant to protect state residents’ finances by enforcing Federal Trade Commission rules. 

House Bill 2014, passed 40-0 in the Senate and 122-1 in the House, is meant to encourage greater access to emergency medical services education and expand the EMS instructor workforce by changing some statutes and outdated language. 

House Substitute for SB 42, passed 82-41 in the House and 38-1 in the Senate, exempts some of the state’s rural hospitals from paying a hospital provider assessment fee. The legislation also requires local hospital boards to have a majority of their members be residents of the county in which the hospital is located.

Senate Bill 75, passed 122-1 in the House and 38-0 in the Senate, changes legal interest rates in civil tort action cases to to limit prejudgment interest amounts.

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.