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Kansas officials set to begin drafting 50-year water plan

By Trevor Graff | April 11, 2014

The team of Kansas water officials working to shape the future of water resources in the state is one step closer to drafting its 50-year water plan after a Friday meeting to share public input gathered from more than 140 meetings across the state.

The team of officials from the Kansas Water Office, Kansas Water Authority and Kansas Department of Agriculture worked alongside more than 150 attendees to mold what will be the final public comment before the agencies begin drafting the plan.

Overwhelmingly, participants in the workshop reminded officials that education is the key to tackling the state’s water issues. Many in attendance said that those living in drought-stricken corners of the state are beginning to realize that action needs to be taken.

Gary Harshberger, Chairman of the Kansas Water Authority

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“We’ve been in a drought now for, in some areas, five years and that’s put additional strain on the water supply,” said Gary Harshberger, chairman of the Kansas Water Authority, which is a committee that advises the Kansas Legislature on water issues. “I think what that has done is serve to show the irrigators really the finite supply they have, where in the past they might not have thought about it as much.”

For those attending the conference in Manhattan, finding a way to get western Kansas irrigators to buy into programs like the Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs), in which irrigators have agreed to cut as much as 20 percent of their water usage, was a main topic.

They say it hinges on finding an incentive, financially or otherwise, that would allow farmers to receive a benefit from conservation.

“It’s one piece of the puzzle, even if it’s regulatory mechanisms like working to gain flexibility within structures like LEMAs,” said Greg Foley, Conservation Division director at the Kansas Department of Agriculture. “It’s not necessarily always financial. The incentives will really come from asking the producers, 'What tools do you need?'”

At this point, with officials beginning to draft the proposed plan, all water conservation concepts are on the table. These range from increased stream bank stabilization to lower sedimentation rates in Kansas reservoirs to the Kansas aqueduct plan to connect the Missouri River to southwestern reaches of the state.

Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, said the aqueduct project, currently the subject of a $300,000 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state, is still on the table.

Tracy Streeter, Director of the Kansas Water Office

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The study is about one-third of the way finished. Earl Lewis, assistant director of the water office, said response to the project is mixed.

The plan isn’t centered solely on conservation in western Kansas. The restoration of reservoirs more prevalent in the eastern half of the state played a large role in the day’s discussion.

Streeter said protecting Kansas current reservoir system from the issue of sedimentation - the filling of reservoirs with sediment carried in from upstream - is essential going forward and that restoring capacities already lost to sedimentation is key.

One main focus to this point has been on the dredging of reservoirs.

“Dredging is going to be in the mix, because there’s a lot of trouble with building new reservoirs and constructing new sources,” Streeter said. “The philosophy is we should be taking advantage and using the resources that we already have.”

But officials stressed the fact that the 50-year water vision is not pitting the eastern half of the state against the west and that the vision is a statewide plan to better manage resources. Officials said they aren’t looking for one solution to the problem, but rather seek a holistic plan to handle the different issues found across the state.

Jackie McClaskey, Kansas Secretary of Agriculture

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“Whatever we do in regard to this water vision, it needs to take a statewide approach,” said Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey. “We need to consider it corner-to-corner, but at the same time we need to not propose a one-size-fits-all approach.”

She said that each part of the state requires different action to find the best practices for water management.

The group stressed the fact that improved communication between state agencies and Kansans across the state is the key to adapting the vision to specific areas.

“I see more of this relationship developing that the producers have with the Department of Agriculture and Division of Water Resources that really wasn’t there in the past,” Harshberger said. “I see a partnership forming to where the user and what used to be the regulatory side are becoming more partnered and working toward the same ends.”

McClaskey said time is running low for officials to enact changes in Kansas water policy.

“This is the time,” she said. “If something doesn’t happen at this point in time, what any of us would say to future generations would probably not be very pretty. This is the point where action has to occur.”

The agency will continue to take public comment while working on the first draft for the next four months.

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