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Water office cut could delay stream bank projects

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KHI news service

From the Kansas Health Institute:

Budget cuts to the Kansas Water Office should not result in any layoffs but could delay some reservoir maintenance projects, the head of the office said this week.

Tracy Streeter, the office’s director since 2004, said he’s still examining the allotments that Gov. Sam Brownback announced last week. But he doesn’t expect his relatively small state agency to lose any staff.

“It will not affect personnel,” Streeter said. “Because the state general fund (appropriation) was reduced, we’ll use other funds to fill the gap temporarily.”

The cuts to the water office were part of more than $80 million in reductions Brownback made after the Legislature passed a budget that did not balance.

At $250,000, the water office cut was small compared to others. But for an agency with a total budget of about $1.15 million, it was proportionately the largest, at close to 22 percent.

Streeter said he had some warning the cut was coming. The water office will absorb the cut in part by using reserve money from a “water marketing fund” that increases during dry years as municipalities and private companies tap the reservoirs the office helps maintain.

The amount of precipitation this year will determine the health of the reserve fund and whether the budget cuts force Streeter’s office to take other actions.

“We might have to delay a stream bank project or two as a result of this, I don’t know yet,” Streeter said. “Right now I’m not counting on that even. We’ll probably take more of a wait-and-see (approach) and see how our water revenue performs this year.”

Streeter said he’s preparing for the reduction in state funding to be for only one year. He said it doesn’t indicate any shifting of priorities for Brownback, who has made enacting a 50-year water plan central to his tenure as governor.

But Rep. Tom Sloan, a Republican from Lawrence who has been one of the Legislature’s strongest voices on water issues, said the cut shouldn’t be interpreted any other way.

“You just can’t say water is a priority and not fund it,” Sloan said.

Sloan acknowledged that the governor has formed a Blue Ribbon Task Force to look at ways to fund the state’s water projects but said the state has failed to fund its share of reservoir maintenance projects for years.

The stream bank stabilization projects that may be delayed prevent erosion that sends sediment flowing through rivers and into the reservoirs, lessening the amount of water they can hold.

Capacity can only be restored through dredging projects, like one that just started at John Redmond Reservoir, which are far more expensive than the stream bank projects.

Sloan said that the eastern half of the state, which is home to most of the state’s reservoirs, has seen significant rain so far this year, which will lead to more erosion and sedimentation.

Delays to stream bank stabilization in order to balance the budget short-term would be “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” he said, but that’s the approach Brownback and Republican legislative leaders have taken as the state faces continuing revenue shortfalls following income tax cuts signed in 2012.

“It’s the Band-Aid approach,” Sloan said. “We’re no longer looking down the road saying ‘What is it that the state should be doing? What is it that sustains us as a state long-term?’”

The nonprofit KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute and a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor reporting collaboration. All stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org when a story is reposted online.