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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 KHI.org.

Legislator aims to replenish Kansas water plan fund

As state fails to make annual contribution, lawmaker proposes clean drinking water fee increase

By Andy Marso | February 20, 2015

Legislator aims to replenish Kansas water plan fund
Photo by Susie Fagan A bill proposed by Rep. Tom Sloan would provide funds for water projects throughout the state. Some of the money could be used to maintain reservoirs like Clinton Lake that serve as the predominant water source for eastern Kansas cities.

As elements of the governor’s 50-year water vision wind through the legislative process, one legislator would like to speed up work to fund projects neglected as the state fails to pay its share of the state water plan fund.

Of the $18 million that the fund is supposed to contain, $6 million should come from the state general fund annually, while the rest comes from a variety of fees. The state has not contributed its share for several years.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s water vision establishes a panel to examine funding, but Rep. Tom Sloan, a Republican from Lawrence, said the situation is too urgent to wait.

There are steps that could be taken now with the proper funding, Sloan said, especially when it comes to maintaining the reservoirs that are the predominant water source for eastern Kansas cities.

“The governor’s people have done a good job of getting out across the state and listening and creating that wish list,” Sloan said. “I know that in it some things are higher priority than others. But that’s just a statement, it’s not a timeline.”

Sloan said much of the governor’s vision focuses on conserving the Ogallala aquifer, and rightly so. Eighty-five percent of the water used in Kansas goes to irrigation, and in the western half of the state much of that is pumped up from the Ogallala, which is severely depleted in some areas.

But Sloan said there’s only so much that can be done to preserve underground aquifers that replenish very slowly. Meanwhile, reservoir maintenance projects that could be completed with more funding are piling up. As projects like streambank stabilization are delayed, more sediment builds up in the reservoirs, which in the long run will require more costly dredging projects to stay viable.

With the state in a major budget crisis, it does not appear that the state general fund payments to the water plan will return soon.

So Sloan has proposed, in House Bill 2014, to increase the clean drinking water fee — one of seven fees that pay into the water plan fund — in order to make up for some of the state’s missing share.

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The proposal would increase the fee built into the water bill of everyone who draws from public supply from 3 cents per 1,000 gallons of water to 13 cents. Sloan said although it may sound like a large increase, milk costs about $3,000 per 1,000 gallons and domestic beer costs about $10,000 per 1,000 gallons.

Water, Sloan said, is more precious and severely undervalued.

“What I’m trying to get at is the value versus the costs,” Sloan said. “The value of water is far greater than the cost of it to the retail consumer.”

Sloan said increasing the fee would create greater incentives for consumers to conserve water and save them money in the long run by allowing engineers to complete the sediment-fighting projects that will reduce the need for dredging.

‘Bang for the buck’

Dennis Schwartz, a member of the Kansas Water Authority, told the Vision 2020 Committee that Sloan chairs that his group has whittled its list of projects to only “high-priority” and that streambank stabilization tops even that list.

“If we can minimize the inflow of sediment to the reservoirs, we can get so much more bang for the buck,” Schwartz said.

While there’s wide agreement that the projects need to get done, dissent remains on whether to use fees as the funding source.

The League of Kansas Municipalities, the lobbying organization that represents Kansas cities, said the funding burden already falls heavily on municipal water systems.

“Since municipal water fees and clean drinking water fees, which are largely paid by public water systems, are already responsible for about half the total revenue for the water plan fund, those fees should not be increased,” the league’s legal counsel, Michael Koss, said in a memo to legislators.

In the current fiscal year, those two fees accounted for almost $7 million of the water plan fund’s $13 million in revenue.

Industrial water fees brought in about $1 million, while fees paid by the agriculture industry for things like fertilizer and pesticide registration made up most of the rest.

Talk of raising fees has some legislators — especially those who opposed the 2012 income tax cuts that preceded the budget crunch — asking why the state’s $6 million share of the water plan fund has been missing for several years.

Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Republican from Mission Hills, asked Schwartz if he had talked with Brownback about why the governor has not proposed restoring the funds, given his concern about the state water supply.  

“I think it is helpful for us and the general public to understand what that disconnect is,” Bollier said. “So I encourage you to continue asking those questions so the public can understand — me included.”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Fallen down on its obligation’

Sloan said he understands the frustration.

State law requires the $6 million appropriation every year. But the Legislature and the governor have not approved any of it since fiscal year 2011.

“The original water plan was a compromise between the consumers, the agriculture interests and the state,” Sloan said. “The state has fallen down on its obligation.”

With no state funding on the horizon, Sloan said his priority is finding the means to get stalled projects moving quickly.

Rep. Larry Hibbard, a Republican from Toronto, praised Sloan for pushing the issue, calling him “the water warrior of the Capitol” and agreeing that there’s “been an awful lot of rhetoric and not much movement” on the importance of water conservation.

But Hibbard said he was concerned that with leadership desperate for ways to resolve the looming budget deficit, excess money raised through fees might be reappropriated and not go to the water projects.

“I think we’re going to run out of money before we run out of water,” Hibbard said.

Aaron Popelka, vice president of legal and government affairs for the Kansas Livestock Association, said that already had happened in the “rescission” bill legislators passed recently to close the budget gap in the current fiscal year and keep government operating.

Although there wasn’t much left in the fee funds, the Legislature swept what was there, which Popelka said set a bad precedent and left little appetite for fee increases among his members.

“I think we’re going to run out of money before we run out of water.”

- Rep. Larry Hibbard, a Republican from Toronto

“Our folks are going to be really hesitant to increase their fees so you can balance the general fund,” Popelka told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Budget Committee on Thursday.

Popelka testified against Sloan’s bill. He said there’s at least one large feedlot in the state that relies on municipal water, and HB 2014 would cost it thousands of dollars each year.

Sloan told the committee he’s willing to lower the amount of the fee increase to just cover designated projects and leave no money to be swept.

Koss, despite his earlier hard line on fee increases, said the league of municipalities might be willing to negotiate.

“We just think this fee increase is a little bit much,” Koss said.

‘Balanced and fair approach’

Popelka said the livestock association wants to stay within the parameters of the governor’s 50-year plan. That plan calls for a “blue ribbon” task force to convene and discuss possible funding sources, but the formation of the task force, originally scheduled for November, has been pushed back until after the session.

Jackie McClaskey, secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said the change was made so that legislators can participate in the task force.

She said her department’s priorities for spending the water fund money don’t necessarily line up with those of the Kansas Water Authority. She would prefer to wait for the task force to make its recommendations on how the fund should be replenished.

“His bill is looking specifically at the clean drinking water fee,” McClaskey said. “We would probably be more supportive of an approach that says, ‘Let’s look at all the funding that goes into the state water plan and let’s take the time and make sure it’s a balanced and fair approach to funding the state water plan.’”

McClaskey said the agriculture department appreciates Sloan starting the conversation about how the plan should be funded, but the task force should have its say before anything is finalized.

Sloan said that means the Legislature won’t have a chance to act on the task force’s recommendations until 2016. That’s an election year for all 165 legislators, which he said would make passing fee increases all the more difficult, even if they’re needed to fund critical projects.

That could mean no action until 2017, as reservoirs continue to fill with sediment.

“How much longer do we put off investing in our own water?” Sloan said. “Because it only gets more expensive going forward.”