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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.

Agriculture secretary provides water legislation specifics

Moderate Republicans say measures don’t go far enough to sustain supply

By Andy Marso | January 15, 2015

The secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture outlined for legislators Wednesday the specific items they will be asked to address this session to implement Gov. Sam Brownback’s 50-year vision to sustain the state’s water supply.

Secretary Jackie McClaskey said that in conversations across the state with more than 13,000 Kansans, her department heard that solutions should be locally based and should not unintentionally penalize those already using water conscientiously.

She said the plan reflects that.

“Our programs and efforts need to be, as much as possible, voluntary-driven, incentive-driven and market-based,” McClaskey told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

The governor’s plan is in part a response to the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides much of the water used to grow crops in the western half of the state. In some areas, less than 25 years of water suitable for irrigation is believed to be available.

The plan seeks to extend the life of the aquifer and rejuvenate the state’s reservoir system.

Two moderate Republicans on the panel expressed skepticism that voluntary, market-based measures will be sufficient to do that.

Rep. Tom Sloan, a Lawrence Republican and advocate for the environment, said he thinks the state is past the point of voluntary measures, especially for groundwater.

But he said “that’s the minority opinion” in the conservative Legislature, and in Brownback’s administration.

“The administration’s not going to support anything that’s mandatory,” Sloan said.

Rep. Tom Moxley, a Council Grove Republican who owns a ranch, called the plan “a nice way to start,” but joked about its lack of teeth.

“Ultimately what we want to happen is to have my neighbors reduce their water use and I can still use mine,” he said.

McClaskey has said her department also will seek to increase penalties for overpumping, but that will be done through the rules and regulations process, not legislation.

The legislative items McClaskey unveiled Wednesday include:

  • Multi-year account carryover. Water rights holders are allowed to carry over unused water rights within a five-year period. McClaskey said that encourages users to pump everything the fifth year. Coming legislation would change the accounts so that new enrollees could carry over only up to one year’s worth of water.
  • State revolving loan fund availability. State law bars dollars within this Kansas Department of Health and Environment fund from going to water transfer projects. Legislators will be asked to repeal that statute so the money could be used for transfer projects if there is some left after its first priority: helping communities reach drinking water quality requirements.
  • Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMA) expansion. State law allows groundwater management districts to form LEMAs in which users voluntarily agree to limit water use. A bill will be introduced to also allow conservation districts to sponsor LEMAs or to allow any other local group to directly petition the Agriculture Department for formation of its own LEMA.
  • Change application for place of use. State law does not allow changes in place of water use for those locked into a term permit, such as a multi-year account. The department will introduce legislation to allow users to apply to change their place of water use for up to 10 acres or 10 percent if they’re transitioning to a more efficient irrigation system.
  • Protecting conservation efforts in future actions. This change would protect the water rights of those who have demonstrated good water stewardship in the event of future voluntary and involuntary use reductions.
  • Third-party conservation easements. This change would enable the Agriculture Department to hold perpetual easements between private landowners and government or land trusts.