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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to

Aqueduct debate looms over water votes

By Andy Marso | March 21, 2016

Aqueduct debate looms over water votes
Photo by KHI News Service File Photo An aqueduct that would move water from the Missouri River in northeast Kansas across the state was among the topics of debate Monday in the Kansas Legislature.

The Legislature moved forward on a pair of water-related bills Monday, even as debate over the wisdom of building an aqueduct across the state continued.

The aqueduct is not formally part of Gov. Sam Brownback’s 50-year water plan, but officials from a groundwater management district in southwest Kansas want to explore it as an option to divert Missouri River runoff to their moisture-starved region.

The Senate gave initial approval Monday to a bill that would set up a regulatory framework for the Kansas Department of Agriculture to appropriate waters that otherwise would leave the state — despite several senators’ concerns about the aqueduct project and what it could mean.

“This is a first step toward building a canal across Kansas,” said Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Republican from Hiawatha in the northeast part of the state.

Pyle said he was worried about the groundwater management district in southwest Kansas applying for a “vast amount” of water.

The southwest Kansas agriculture sector relies heavily on the Ogallala Aquifer, which is becoming depleted from overuse.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Republican from Sedgwick, said new water appropriations could infringe on the supply of existing water rights holders.

“I’m concerned that we are probably massaging water law a little bit too much and a little bit too quickly,” McGinn said.

Sen. Larry Powell, a Republican from Garden City, said fears expressed by McGinn and others about the bill affecting Kansans with more senior water rights were unfounded.

Powell’s district is in the heart of the area that would benefit from the 360-mile aqueduct, which is estimated to cost $18 billion to build and another $400 million annually to maintain.

But Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, a Republican from Grinnell, said the western water shortage should be considered a state concern, not a regional one, because of its implications for the economy.

“If we have the water out there, if this could keep us alive, that’s good for Kansas,” Ostmeyer said.

The water appropriation bill, Senate Substitute for House Bill 2059, still needs House approval.

The Department of Agriculture has opposed the measure, arguing that legislators should wait for a conference of governors from affected states — as called for in Brownback’s water plan — before giving Kansans the right to divert water.

“We don’t know how much of the Missouri River is Kansas’ portion,” said Lane Letourneau, the department’s water appropriation manager.

Letourneau said Brownback and the leader of the Kansas Water Office are still in talks with counterparts in other states to come to a collaborative agreement on how to use the Missouri River. But there’s no certain date for formal meetings yet.

Meanwhile, with House passage Monday, two other bills that are part of Brownback’s 50-year plan are now heading to the governor’s desk:

  • Senate Bill 329 would help farmers who switch from flood irrigation to pivot irrigation in the middle of multiyear water use agreements to adjust those agreements without paying another application fee. SB 329 bill passed unanimously in both chambers.
  • Senate Bill 330 would establish a “conservation reserve enhancement program” to encourage voluntary stream bank preservation, which prevents erosion that leads to sedimentation of streams and reservoirs. Letourneau said it is a necessary measure to preserve water quality and keep sediment out of reservoirs. SB 330 passed unanimously in the Senate and passed 96-26 in the House.