© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kansas Is Running Out Of Water Sooner Rather Than Later

Dave Ranney
Heartland Health Monitor
Reservoirs such as Clinton Lake help supply water to people living in eastern Kansas. Recent rains and resulting sedimentation pose a threat to that water supply.

As the Kansas Water Congress opens its annual meeting this year, the state’s top water regulator said the sense of urgency for conservation has never been greater.

The state is just now emerging from a multi-year drought that forced irrigators to further deplete an Ogallala aquifer supply already projected to be used up much faster than it regenerates.

Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, said Thursday that in some areas of Kansas, it’s the current generation of farmers — not future generations — that will watch their crops wither for lack of water.

“In places it’s absolutely true that it’s that short-term,” Streeter said. “If you look at the estimated usable lifetime maps … there’s areas in there where there’s less than 25 years of usable life, according to that kind of gross map. So that’s within this generation.”

The Kansas Water Congress is a nonprofit group dedicated to stewardship of the state’s water resources that preserves them for future generations.

Two days of meetings opened Thursday in Lawrence with presentations by officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a host of state agencies, including the Kansas Geological Survey, Kansas Biological Survey and Kansas Water Office.

The audience of about 75 included local watershed officials, state legislators, agriculture lobbyists and other stakeholders. They came to the University of Kansas student union to learn about topics like new EPA clean water rules, earthquakes caused by injection of wastewater from oil and natural gas drilling, and Gov. Sam Brownback’s 50-year water vision.

Much of that vision focuses on extending the life of the Ogallala, and Streeter said momentum is building for the substantial changes needed to do that.

“I get the sense that the time is now,” Streeter said. “There’s a sense of urgency more and more. I’ve been around a long time, and we’ve worked on this several decades and the sense of urgency now is far greater than it’s ever been.”

Water rights vs. supply

If the aquifer problems are not addressed soon and substantively, many users will be unable to pump as much water as their property rights allow, which will likely lead to court battles against those with less senior rights.  

Burke Griggs, legal counsel to the state’s Division of Water Resources, spoke about the evolution of the 1945 Kansas Water Appropriation Act that is central to those disputes, emphasizing it was his own opinion and not those of any state agency.

Griggs said a historical softening of standards for the granting of water rights brought short-term economic gain to the state’s agriculture sector but also caused a “severe and permanent over-appropriation of the Ogallala.”

The water rights already granted exceed by several times the actual water available in the aquifer, he said, meaning impairment of some Kansans’ water rights is inevitable.

So far that impairment has not led to much legal action, especially compared to other states like Colorado or New Mexico.

But Griggs said the cost of impairments in some areas soon could outweigh the cost of litigating, which would drive those affected to court.

As an example, he cited the Garetson Brothers v. American Warrior case, involving water appropriations in Haskell County, that the Kansas Court of Appeals decided in April.

“Is this a culture shift, or an outlier?” Griggs said. “I have heard both based on the gossip in this case.”

One option to prepare for a rush of future litigation would be to establish a special court to deal specifically with Ogallala impairment disputes, similar to a water court in Montana, he said.

Working with data from the Division of Water Resources and other agencies, the court would seek to close the technical gap between the current, over-appropriated water rights and the actual water available.

The analogy, Griggs said, would be bankruptcy courts that decide how to distribute limited settlement funds among creditors owed much more.

‘Ominous figures’

Access to the Ogallala drives the western Kansas farm economy, but its depletion is not Kansas’ only water problem.

Thursday’s program also included presentations on the reservoirs that are key to the water supply of eastern Kansas. Many of the reservoirs are losing capacity as sediment like sand and mud flows in.

Jerry DeNoyelles, of the Kansas Biological Survey, said population growth in the eastern Kansas cities that rely on the reservoirs combined with millions of cubic yards of lost capacity will force action soon.

“These are ominous figures,” DeNoyelles said.

Reservoir capacity can be increased through sediment dredging, but it’s an expensive process and the state has failed to kick in its funding portion of the water plan fund for years.

Rep. Tom Sloan, a Republican from Lawrence, last session floated an idea to raise municipal water fees to pay for more reservoir maintenance, but it went nowhere.

Streeter said the state had a $3.5 million windfall from a water use lawsuit against Nebraska to put toward Lower Republican River basin projects and another $400,000 from a former oil and natural gas well fund to use in reducing Tuttle Creek sedimentation.

Part of the governor’s water vision also dictates the appointment of a task force to identify long-term funding sources. Streeter said the goal is to have the task force appointed by November, but it’s unlikely to have any recommendations ready for the Legislature to vote on in the next session.

That means that a long-term funding plan for the state’s water projects is not likely to be finalized any earlier than 2017.

In the meantime, DeNoyelles said, there are ways to reduce the effects of sedimentation, though it can never be stopped.

Efforts to quell erosion on land have worked well, he said, but more streambank restoration is needed. And there’s one thing every Kansan can do.

“We have to use less water,” DeNoyelles said. “Less ground water and less surface water.”

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR 89.3 and the Kansas News Service based in Topeka.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.