The first draft of Gov. Sam Brownback’s “50-Year Vision for the Future of Water in Kansas” is out and awaiting a grade from the residents of the Sunflower state.
The draft represents input from hundreds of meetings over the past six months with more than 9,000 stakeholders across the state, from farmers and residents to ethanol plants and utility company representatives.
The document is the result of an initiative launched by Brownback in October 2013 to establish steps for preserving the state’s endangered water supplies, with priority placed on the declining Ogallala Aquifer and over-silted federal reservoirs.
The draft sets a few possible goals for Kansans to consider, such as reducing water use per resident by 10% by 2035, or cutting total state water consumption and Ogallala withdrawals by 20% by 2065.
As the number-one consumer of water in the state, the agricultural industry naturally features prominently in the 46-page document’s proposals on how Kansans could reach these goals.
REMOVING BARRIERS TO CONSERVATION
Tweaking state policy to be friendlier to conservation efforts is a strong theme in the Water Vision draft.
Locally enhanced management areas, or LEMAs, were a popular topic at meetings state officials hosted in western Kansas, said Susan Metzger, chief of policy and planning for the Kansas Water Office. LEMAs allow area producers to set and adhere to local voluntary water cuts. The Vision draft suggests changing the state’s LEMA Act to allow LEMAs to sprout up in different areas, not just groundwater management districts (GMDs).
“We have heard from people who live on the border of a GMD or are removed by several counties interested in forming that type of conservation plan but lack the former structure to do so,” Metzger told DTN.
Mock water banks are proposed in the draft as a way to boost participation in Kansas’ underused Water Banking Act. Currently, only GMD No. 5 in south-central Kansas has an active water bank, Metzger pointed out.
“I think what really has kept it from being successfully adopted in other places is farmers really having the opportunity to try a bank out without truly trading your water and your finances up front,” she explained.
The most immediate and tangible draft proposal could be changes to the fairly weak over-pumping penalties that irrigators currently face. Kansas Water Office Director Tracy Streeter said “stiff, clear and more easily understandable” penalties are already under consideration at the Kansas Division of Water Resources.
Water rights also surfaced in the draft. Several areas in the eastern parts of the state are still open to new water right developments, and closing more regions off was a common suggestion for the draft, Metzger said.
Once regions are closed to new appropriations, they also ditch the “use it or lose it” clause in the state’s water appropriation act. The clause, which threatens abandonment of a water right if it isn’t used sufficiently, has been widely criticized for penalizing landowners who want to pare down their water use.
Likewise, the draft proposes eliminating the policy of “perfecting” a water right. When an individual applies for a water right, they perfect it by proving how much water they need to use in a year. “It may incentivize somebody to pump more than they need to in order to perfect a greater (water) right than necessary,” Metzger said.
LOOKING BEYOND FULL IRRIGATION
Even with dramatic conservation efforts, parts of western Kansas will inevitably run out of groundwater reserves, and the draft tries to address that, Streeter said.
“We do think about what happens after irrigation,” he said. “There’re going to be some wells that will fall below the threshold to pump despite pretty significant conservation. So we need to make those areas that go dryland economically viable, and we’ve got to make sure that what they grow on that dryland is what the feedyards, the ethanol plants, and the dairies need.”
To that end, the draft proposes expanding research and market efforts for water-efficient crops like sorghum. It also proposes educational and even regulatory efforts to limit the 2,4-D drift that makes growing cotton in Kansas so challenging.
Streeter said the Vision committee is also working with the USDA’s Risk Management Agency and sorghum industry groups to get better data on fully irrigated sorghum so farmers don’t face a cut in insurance coverage when they switch to the crop from corn.
“We hear a lot that producers want to do something but crop insurance won’t let them,” Streeter added. “We want to get some wholesale changes so if an irrigator wants to reduce the amount of water that’s applied, that they can get a smaller policy on that field.” Currently, only LEMA producers can negotiate limited irrigation options on their acres.
Many of the draft’s proposals will be costly, but the Vision team isn’t hashing out costs just yet, Metzger said. “For this document we wanted to lay out everything that could be done, with or without funding, first,” she said. “Lead with a need, and the funding will follow.”
Those funding needs will likely be substantial. A previous analysis puts the cost of reducing sedimentation in Kansas reservoirs, a project that features prominently in the draft, in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Yet Streeter insisted that the final draft of the Vision, set to be released in November 2014, is likely to be taken seriously by the state. “I know there have been some plans preceding this that maybe collected some dust, but I think the drought that we’re hopefully coming out of has really changed Kansans’ mindsets about water,” he said. “I think there is a larger sense of urgency to do some of the things in this document, and we have a governor leading the charge, which hasn’t always been the case.”
To see the draft, visit this Kansas Water Office website: here.