Kansas legislation got ‘watered down’ but will help aquifer conservation efforts

‘There’s the eternal battle between limited resources … and need,’ says Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City, who chairs the House Water Committee

By: - May 12, 2023 8:30 am
A center-pivot irrigation system is viewed in a field

A center-pivot irrigation system sits idle near Colby, Kansas, in December. Lawmakers this spring passed legislation meant to bring accountability to efforts to conserve the Ogallala Aquifer and provide funding for water needs. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas state representatives this spring voted for “historic” legislation spending more than $50 million a year on preserving groundwater and restoring the state’s reservoirs.

By the time the Senate finished with the bill, it was “watered down” but “a good start.”

Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, said when lawmakers and farm and environmental groups come together, sometimes the least common denominator is all everyone can agree on. She said the legislation didn’t accomplish everything she hoped.

“But I absolutely think they were things that we could all agree on and came together with a really strong compromise,” said Vaughn, who serves as ranking Democrat on the Kansas House Water Committee and introduced one of two major pieces of legislation on water passed this year.

For three years, the House has dedicated a committee to study the state’s many issues with water — disappearing groundwater in the west, reservoirs full of sediment and uranium contaminating drinking water, among others — and come up with legislation to help.

This year, they passed two bills increasing funding for water conservation efforts and strengthening accountability measures over local groundwater authorities managing use of the Ogallala Aquifer. But a number of amendments in the Senate weakened both pieces of legislation in the eyes of House proponents.

Still, proponents said, the legislation is a huge step forward for Kansas, which has watched its finite supply of water in the west dwindle for more than half a century.

“There’s the eternal battle between limited resources … and need,” said Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City, who chairs the House Water Committee.

With Gov. Laura Kelly’s signature last month, Kansas dedicated $35 million a year toward the state water plan, which received $8 million in the last fiscal year. The funds will allow Kansas to restore storage in reservoirs that are filling with sediment, provide funds for farmers to acquire water-saving technology and improve research and modeling of the remaining aquifer waters.

At the time, Kelly said the state needs to conserve water as it has “powered our booming farming economy for generations.”

“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 said in a news release.

Beyond that, she signed legislation that would require Kansas’ five groundwater management districts to identify priority areas within their territories and come up with plans to conserve water there. Three of the GMDs draw water from the Ogallala Aquifer and have varied widely in their efforts to conserve it

But the bills didn’t do everything the House proponents hoped. The Senate version dedicated millions less to water priorities, and rather than dedicate a portion of the state’s sales tax for it, the Senate wanted to divert general fund dollars. Those funds are easier to redirect to other priorities. The House wanted a safer, more reliable funding source.

After they passed the Senate, the bills went to a conference committee of representatives and senators to work out the difference. Vaughn said the message from senators about their version of the legislation was essentially “take it or leave it.”

She suspected that came from the Senate leadership, not the three senators on the conference committee.

“That’s really frustrating when you’ve been working on something that’s bipartisan, that has a ton of support, that passed the House overwhelmingly — and then to come together with senators who maybe haven’t been spending quite as much time on it and having them drive the deal,” she said. 

A spokesman for Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, did not return a request for comment.

Sen. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, said the general fund appropriation was more flexible, meaning the Legislature could also easily increase funding for water in the future.

He said the current drought is emphasizing the importance of doing something before the state runs out of water. 

“We got to make it work,” Kerschen said. “We don’t get a second chance if this fails.”

Dwindling water supply

Kansas began pumping water from the Ogallala Aquifer — a massive underground store of freshwater that spans much of the Great Plains — in the early 20th century.

After World War II, pumping picked up, and irrigation led to an agriculture boom out west. 

But quickly, the state realized the water wouldn’t last forever. And despite knowing for decades that it needed to find a way to slow the decrease in the water supply, there are parts of western Kansas that have only 10 or 20 years of water left.

“We’re at kind of a linchpin point. … I think what’s being done now and the decisions that are being made now are … going to shape what the future looks like out here,” said Katie Durham, manager of Groundwater Management District 1, which encompasses parts of Wallace, Greeley, Wichita, Scott and Lane counties.

Since the 1970s, the three groundwater management districts on the Ogallala have had the authority to collect taxes and implement programs to conserve the aquifer.

But while more recent legislation has allowed the GMDs to establish “local enhanced management areas,” or LEMAs, to enforce cutbacks on pumping, decades went by where the aquifer still declined.

GMDs 1 and 4 in west-central and northwest Kansas have had success with LEMAs while GMD 3 in southwest Kansas is the only one focused on a proposal to pump water from the Missouri River across the state.

Under the new legislation, all five GMDs will have to report annually on their income and assets, budgets, activities and efforts to reduce unsustainable use of the aquifer.

By July 2024, the GMDs have to identify priority areas where there is less than 50 years of water left or the water is declining rapidly. A year after that, they have to come up with plans to address those areas.

Shannon Kenyon, who manages GMD 4, said the legislation will force GMDs that haven’t done as much to conserve groundwater to start. GMD 4 was the first to implement a LEMA to restrict water usage.

“Now, this forces those — to an extent — to do something about it,” Kenyon said. “They’re going to be held accountable.”

Funding for water

When the House-Senate compromise came up for a vote on the House floor, Vaughn said she was disappointed with the “watered down” version of the legislation, especially the Senate’s insistence on using general funds for water rather than dedicating a portion of sales tax revenues.

“For the past 20 years,” Vaughn said, “we have been statutorily required to transfer $8 million a year to the water plan. And we consistently have not done it, so we are just setting ourself up for more failure into the future.”

But she said she was still hopeful and urged support. The amended version passed almost unanimously.

GMD leaders said the extra funding could help finance irrigation technology for farmers that can reduce their water use without sacrificing crop yields or help bring in irrigation experts to advise farmers in the district.

The funds will also help the state finance efforts to improve drinking water quality and remove sediment from the state’s reservoirs, which provide drinking water in the east. Tuttle Creek Lake near Manhattan is almost half full of sediment, reducing the capacity for fresh water. 

“The state has struggled with trying to find a path for providing additional funding for water in Kansas, and this moved the ball forward,” said Mark Rude, manager of GMD 3. “There’s no question about it.”

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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.