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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.

State unveils water project task force

Coming year also key to addressing overpumping, impairment disputes

By Andy Marso | November 18, 2015

State unveils water project task force
Photo by Andy Marso Gov. Sam Brownback opened a conference on the the future of water in the state by saying that the research and planning stages of the water vision are complete. “It’s time we make the tough decisions and move on forward,” he said.

Water task force members

State officials on Wednesday announced members of a task force that will recommend how to fund the state’s water projects.

Organizations

  • Randall Allen, executive director, Kansas Association of Counties
  • John Bridson, vice president of generation, Westar Energy
  • Colin Hansen, executive director, Kansas Municipal Utilities
  • Gary Harshberger, chairman, Kansas Water Authority
  • Terry Holdren, chief executive officer, Kansas Farm Bureau
  • Karma Mason, member, Kansas Chamber and Kansas Water Authority
  • Erik Sartorius, executive director, League of Kansas Municipalities
  • Dennis Schwartz, director, Kansas Rural Water Association and Kansas Water Authority
  • Matt Teagarden, chief executive officer, Kansas Livestock Association
  • Tom Tunnell, president and CEO, Kansas Grain and Feed Association

Legislature

  • Sen. Jim Denning, Overland Park Republican
  • Sen. Tom Hawk, Manhattan Democrat
  • Sen. Larry Powell, Garden City Republican
  • Rep. Jerry Henry, Atchison Democrat
  • Rep. Steven Johnson, Assaria Republican
  • Rep. Sharon Schwartz, Washington Republican

Ex-Officio

  • Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Secretary Robin Jennison
  • Kansas Department of Agriculture Secretary Jackie McClaskey
  • Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Susan Mosier
  • Kansas Water Office Director Tracy Streeter

A task force that will make recommendations for how to fund the state’s water projects was unveiled Wednesday.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force is part of the 50-year plan to secure the state’s water supply that Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration rolled out last year.

Officials from the Kansas Department of Agriculture announced the members at the Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas at the Manhattan Hilton Garden Inn.

Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, told a crowd of hundreds at the conference that the panel intends to work quickly.

“We will get our work done in 2016,” Streeter said.

There are two main water challenges in Kansas: conserving the underground Ogallala Aquifer that sustains the western Kansas agriculture economy and preserving the above-ground reservoirs that supply the eastern Kansas population centers.

The reservoirs are losing storage capacity as they fill with sediment. Some need expensive dredging to increase the amount of water they can hold. The banks of some streams that feed the reservoirs also need to be shored up to prevent further sedimentation.

Those projects traditionally have been funded by a combination of fees on municipal water users, agricultural and industrial users and tax dollars from the state general fund.

But the Legislature has failed to provide its share of about $6 million for several years, contributing to a backlog of reservoir projects.

Getting creative

Last session Rep. Tom Sloan, a Republican from Lawrence who is one of the Legislature’s leading sustainability advocates, developed a plan to increase the municipal fees to fund the projects. Sloan said he would prefer the state kick in its share, but the overall budget crisis makes that unlikely.

Sloan said then he feared that if the task force did not make its recommendations before 2016, the Legislature would wait until after the elections in November of that year to act on them, further delaying the projects.

Agriculture Secretary Jackie McClaskey acknowledged that it had taken “a really long time” to form the task force.

But Streeter noted that the Legislature “got creative” even in the midst of budget problems last session and appropriated $400,000 in each of the next two years to fortify the Tuttle Creek Reservoir.

The task force announced Wednesday includes 10 members of organizations that represent local governments, agriculture groups and utility companies. It also includes six legislators, plus Streeter, McClaskey, Health and Environment Secretary Susan Mosier and Parks and Wildlife Secretary Robin Jennison.

Rep. Steven Johnson, a Republican from Assaria, said he probably was named to the panel because he is a farmer with a background in finance.

While he said he wasn’t sure what direction the panel would go, he would not rule out recommending more state general fund contributions rather than raising user fees that would increase the cost of drinking water and irrigation.

“Certainly fees on users are ones we’ll want to look at any impact on, but I don’t know that we’re looking at raising fees on the users there,” Johnson said.

Governor: Time to move forward

Brownback opened the conference by saying that the research and planning stages of the water vision are complete and the next step is implementation.

“It’s time we make the tough decisions and move on forward,” he said.

The governor acknowledged that choosing to conserve water might cause short-term financial pain for irrigators, but he urged them to think about what resources they will leave for their children and grandchildren.

McClaskey said her department has heard from some Kansans who want mandatory conservation targets. But it plans to stick with the current plan, which relies heavily on voluntary local conservation agreements and market-based incentives.

“That’s what’s going to lead to long-term success in how we conserve our water resources,” she said. “It’s your water; it’s your decision.”

But in some instances, the state may have to step in.

The depletion of the Ogallala has increased disputes between landowners in areas where the state approved more water rights than the aquifer can support.

The disputes are expected to increase, and lawmakers are interested in finding ways to resolve them that don’t strain the water office or the court system.

“We’re going to be looking as an agency about what some of those solutions might be,” McClaskey said. “We haven’t seen a solution as an agency yet that we’re comfortable with.”

New overpumping penalties

She said the department is closer to stiffening penalties for those who exceed their water rights, though.

Consensus has been building for years that the current penalties are not enough to deter overpumping because irrigators stand to gain more money in crop yield than they lose in fines.

The department wants to be deliberate in creating a new penalty system to ensure everyone knows the new consequences, she said. The second day of the conference, she said, would be devoted to vetting some specific proposals to crack down on overpumping.

“Our goal is, by the time we finalize a regulation, every single person in this room will have an opportunity for input,” McClaskey said.

The Legislature has passed most of the legislation her department needs to carry out the governor’s vision, she said, and the department met Brownback’s goal of getting 75 percent of the plan’s Phase One projects started in the first year.

But talks with leaders of surrounding states continue, and the coming year will be key to addressing overpumping, the impairment dispute process and the reservoir project funding.

“Obviously we’ve got a lot of work to do next year,” Streeter said.

Photo by Andy Marso Hundreds of attendees listened as Gov. Sam Brownback spoke Wednesday at the first day of the Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas. The conference continues Thursday in Manhattan.