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Kansas legislators renew efforts to save Ogallala Aquifer

Irrigation system in field
Allison Kite
Kansas Reflector
A center-pivot irrigation system sits idle near Colby, Kansas, in December. Lawmakers are looking for ways to conserve groundwater in parched Western Kansas.

Water committee members are still taking in information about the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer, sedimentation crisis at the state’s reservoirs, and poor water quality in some areas of the state.

TOPEKA — Saving the Ogallala Aquifer could mean economic trade-offs in the short-term, the chairman of the Kansas House Water Committee said Tuesday.

But the state can make progress and still maintain the farming economy of western Kansas, said Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City.

“If I were a banker … looking at the value of agriculture in western Kansas, it makes all kinds of sense to me to try to preserve the aquifer to maintain the economy up there for as many years as possible,” Minnix said.

Minnix, a farmer and livestock producer, is the newly minted chairman of the House Water Committee, which, last year, fell short of passing a sweeping bill overhauling the way Kansas regulates water.

This session, about one-third of the committee members are new. And with just more than a month until a major legislative deadline, the committee doesn’t have any bills to debate yet. Members are still taking in the vast information about the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer, sedimentation crisis at the state’s reservoirs, and poor water quality in some areas of the state.

When it comes to water issues in Kansas, the decades-long decline of the aquifer means legislators have to think about long-term solutions, Minnix said.

“This is not just what we can do in the next three, four weeks, although that’s kind of my charge on this committee, Minnix said. It’s about how to make Kansas “better off here in the next 5, 10, 20, 30 years.”

Minnix said he’s not working on any legislation of his own but will likely sign onto bills other legislators are working on. He expects a dedicated funding source, such as a sales tax, to be one option.

For now, he said, the committee will have to hurry to get new members up to speed.

Members of the House Water Committee on Tuesday heard from Connie Owen, director of the Kansas Water Office, who highlighted some of the severe water issues facing Kansas.

The Ogallala Aquifer, the massive underground reservoir that has provided water to western Kansas for nearly 100 years, is drying up. Some areas of western Kansas have just 10 or 20 years of water left if nothing changes.

But “we can do things differently,” Owen said.

One of the state’s largest reservoirs is half-full of sediment, spurring a pilot project to try to stir up mud and silt and send it downriver.

The loss of storage space in the reservoir is “alarming,” Owen said, as the water system provides drinking water to much of northeastern Kansas. And the storage space is important to provide extra water in years of drought — or storage space during floods.

In the coming months, as committee members search for legislative solutions to Kansas’ water crisis, the state’s auditors are expected to release a report on how well local groundwater managers have conserved water in western Kansas.

And following a December vote, the Kansas Water Authority recommends state lawmakers scrap Kansas’ defacto policy of draining the aquifer. The advisory board also recommended setting up a process to establish goals and policies to “halt the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer while promoting flexible and innovative management within a timeframe that achieves agricultural productivity, thriving economies and vibrant communities — now and for future generations of Kansans.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Allison Kite | Kansas Reflector