Eber Phelps was a member of the Hays City Commission in 1991 when two of the city’s water wells went dry, sucking up nothing but air.
Until then, Hays had little comprehensive plan to save water. The city dug wells here and there and let residents do what they pleased with their plumbing systems.
That all changed when the wells went dry.
Phelps and the other commissioners called in hydrology experts to tell the city where to dig so it could operate its municipal water system with fewer, more efficient wells. City officials provided incentives for residents to install low-flow toilets and showerheads and high-efficiency washing machines and eventually required the equipment for new construction and significant remodels.
City leaders went to local schools to talk with students about the importance of saving water.
“The theory here was to educate the kids, and they’d go teach their parents about water conservation,” Phelps says.
The effort was a resounding success.
Hays dropped its water usage by 50 percent. The city of 21,000 people now uses about the same amount of water as it did in 1970, when the population was near 15,000.
The changes proved crucial in recent years as record drought gripped Hays, along with the rest of western Kansas.
“Through our water conservation efforts, we were able to make it through some really tough years,” Phelps says.
Now Gov. Sam Brownback and others hope the story of Hays can be writ large throughout the state, as Kansas attempts to implement a 50-year water vision to sustain its most basic resource amid dwindling supply.
The plan emphasizes that access to clean water is key to nearly every aspect of Kansas’ future, including the health of its residents. As it notes: “The Vision attempts to make clear water is necessary for human health and welfare as well as environmental stewardship and our economic well-being.”
Implementing the plan will require balancing short-term economic interests with long-term sustainability, state officials say.
About 85 percent of the state’s water is used to irrigate crops. While much of the 50-year plan focuses on incentives for conservation, those carrots are accompanied by the stick of strengthened penalties for overpumping.
It remains to be seen how one of the state’s historically most important industries — agriculture — will respond.
There are also some who believe that the main water source for western Kansas, the Ogallala Aquifer, is past the point of no return when it comes to natural recharge. A plan to build a giant aqueduct to transport water from the Missouri River hundreds of miles has been floated, but it would involve tremendous expense and is not formally a part of the 50-year water plan.
Right now the plan consists of dozens of suggestions for ways that the state, and specific regions within it, can conserve water and re-create the Hays success story.
But Phelps, who was a Democratic state legislator from 1997 to 2012, says he doesn’t have a lot of hope for quick legislative action in a session with grave and immediate fiscal concerns.
“Given the revenue reports and the education funding lawsuit, I see this being put on the back burner,” Phelps says.
Agriculture Secretary Jackie McClaskey is more optimistic.
After serving as part of a group that has toured the state explaining the 50-year plan to thousands of stakeholders, McClaskey says legislators appear ready to engage.
She says Brownback has led a statewide conversation</a> about water since his first term, when the drought helped drive home the urgency of the situation.
“We have a governor who understands and cares about getting something done on water, so we need to take advantage of this opportunity to get it done,” McClaskey says. “If we don’t act now, we’re not going to get done what we need to.”
Changes to 2012 bill
Brownback opened his second year as governor in 2012 with a slate of ambitious goals: revamp the state income tax code, change the school funding formula, scrap the state employee pension plan in favor of a 401(k)-style plan, privatize Medicaid administration through managed care contracts and modernize the state’s water use laws.
Most were controversial. By comparison, the water use changes were bipartisan and widely supported. The drought was lingering, reservoirs were drying up and the already depleted Ogallala Aquifer that is the lifeblood of western Kansas agriculture was being pumped at a dangerous rate. Nearly everyone in state government agreed that water conservation had to be a priority.
The 2012 changes scrapped the state’s “use-it-or-lose-it” water rights policy that had discouraged conservation by taking water rights from irrigators who did not use their full allotment in a given year. It also expanded the state’s “water banks” system and allowed groups of water rights holders in depleted areas to voluntarily form Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs) where property holders would be bound to reduce water use.
A group of farmers in Sheridan County, just west of Hays, formed the first LEMA. There were high hopes that more would form and local buy-in could help solve the state’s water problems.
But almost three years later, Sheridan County’s LEMA remains the only one in the state.
“I don’t think any of us would deny that we did want to see more LEMAs and for them to be implemented faster than they have been,” McClaskey says. “But I think we’ve learned a lot of really good lessons.”
Among those lessons: Some people wanted to form LEMAs through county governments, local conservation districts or even informal groups of neighbors, rather than being restricted to working through groundwater management districts.
In another instance, some farmers shied away from forming a LEMA in Scott County because of uncertainty about how having a reduced irrigation allotment would affect their crop insurance.
McClaskey says a bill is being drafted to provide landowners more flexibility in forming LEMAs. Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, says he’s working with a risk management agency on the insurance question so it doesn’t hang over the next LEMA vote.
But it’s also become clear to McClaskey and others that voluntary conservation measures like LEMAs have to be paired with harsher penalties for those who pump more than their water rights allow.
The state initiated hundreds of enforcement actions for overpumping in recent years, but the fines had little effect during a time when commodity prices were high and surface water was low.
“They’re just not large enough to sway someone from not pumping more water, because the economic gain is greater than the cost (of the fine),” she says. “It’s a pretty simple decision for someone to make in those cases.”
McClaskey says she believes the department has the authority to increase the penalties without going through the formal regulatory process, but she plans to do so anyway in order to give the public a chance to weigh in. She says any increases would be accompanied with a more transparent and consistent penalty system so violators know the consequences.
Kansas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest agriculture advocacy group, did not return a phone call for comment. But McClaskey says she’s heard little dissent about increased overpumping penalties during her travels explaining the water vision.
“There are a lot of people out there trying to do the right thing,” she says. “They’re very frustrated when they see people that abuse their water rights and abuse Kansas water law, and they don’t believe the penalties are stiff enough to deter that if someone chooses to act unlawfully.”
The aqueduct question
Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union, says his organization would welcome higher overpumping penalties. But the left-leaning group isn’t sold on the Brownback administration’s commitment to conservation.
Teske says the governor’s attempt to focus the state’s attention on water issues is “commendable.” But he wonders how much of the agenda-setting is meant to whet public appetite for the Missouri River aqueduct, or as Teske calls it, “the big damn ditch across the state.”
The feasibility and cost of the aqueduct, which would carry Missouri River floodwater hundreds of miles to western Kansas, is still under study. Streeter says he expects to issue a report soon.
He, Teske and Phelps all agree that cost will be a significant hurdle.
While the 50-year water plan does not specifically call for construction of the aqueduct, it does encourage exploring the transfer of surface water from areas that have it to areas that don’t. McClaskey says the Missouri River should be part of that discussion in some form. But because the Missouri River passes through several states, the plan calls for a conference of governors to talk it over.
A project as major as the aqueduct is on the table only because the aquifer the western half of the state has relied on for decades is depleting so rapidly.
A 2013 Kansas State University study determined that at current irrigation rates, the High Plains Aquifer of Kansas, which includes the Ogallala, will be 70 percent gone within 50 years. Some think even that may be optimistic.
“There ain’t no 50 years of water out in western Kansas anymore,” Teske says.
Teske says farmers should be taking steps now to reduce their water use, such as switching from corn to less water-dependent crops, like grain sorghum.
McClaskey says the 50-year plan includes incentives for researchers to focus on increasing yields for those crops to make them more profitable and encourages research into drought-resistant corn, in order to avoid “picking winners and losers.”
The plan also instructs the state to “compile an inventory of lower quality waters” and determine how those contaminated or brackish waters could be used to spare pure groundwater and remove regulatory barriers to those uses.
Sean Wendel, public works administrator for Gray County, says that could be helpful to his water-depleted area.
Before oil companies were required to dispose of wastewater in lined pits, oil wells used to produce chloride that seeped into the groundwater. He says water in his county contaminated by chloride could be used to mix concrete for roads if not for environmental regulations.
The county wouldn’t have to use fresh water, Wendel says, and the salty oil drilling byproduct actually would make the roads stronger.
“Then our costs go down as far as the county because we’re not having to maintain as much,” he says.
Wendel’s concerns are mainly commercial rather than conservational. The aquifer under Gray County has been depleted as much as anywhere in the state, and the county’s underground water supply is likely to be gone within 25 years.
Wendel, who has lived in Gray County all his life and used to farm, says there’s little point in the state trying to conserve the aquifer now.
“I see what they’re trying to do by regulating it more, but it’s too little, too late,” Wendel says.
Environmental groups like the Kansas Sierra Club strongly disagree. Zack Pistora, the club’s lobbyist, says the drastic situation calls for a drastic solution: limiting aquifer pumping to no more than the annual recharge rate.
“We cannot keep drawing more from our water savings account than what’s going in — that’s the bottom line,” Pistora says. “Without fixing this fundamental issue regarding over-appropriated water rights beyond recharge, our water policy will continue to be unsustainable.”
McClaskey says she’s heard the full spectrum of opinions about how much to pump from the aquifer. The water plan seeks a balance, she says, that stretches the life of the aquifer without handcuffing the agriculture economy by tying its water use to the pace of aquifer recharge.
Extending the aquifer supply even a few decades through conservation, she says, allows precious time for innovations in irrigation and crop science that could extend it even more.
It also allows more time for improved water treatment technologies, which Teske says become more important as the groundwater levels shrink.
“The declining Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas is making it harder and harder for municipalities and rural water districts to find potable water that’s within safe standards,” Teske says. “As the Ogallala declines, toxic material in it concentrates into higher amounts. And it’s becoming, from what I’ve been told, more difficult all the time to find water usable for the population base out there.”
Drinking water implications
The 50-year water plan alludes to the difficulties of which Teske speaks.
“The aquifer has been over-appropriated in many regions and, in localized areas, water quality is deteriorating,” it states.
As aquifer levels deplete, the water pressure that holds off contamination lessens and toxins can creep in more easily.
The state’s largest municipal water system is now trying to ward that off.
Wichita draws water from two sources: Cheney Reservoir and the Equus Beds, which are part of the larger High Plains Aquifer system that includes the Ogallala.
The Equus Beds are under threat from a creeping plume of chloride caused by seepage of wastewater from 1930s oil drilling in Burrton, as noted in a U.S. Geological Survey news release last year.
Alan King, Wichita’s director of public works and utilities, says it will be at least a decade before the plume reaches the water supply and then several decades before the chloride becomes concentrated enough to endanger it. Still, Wichita is taking steps to slow the plume.
“Even though we’ve got decades, we don’t want to wait until it’s too late,” King says. “We want to be proactive on it.”
Wichita set a goal of reducing its Equus Bed water withdrawals from 60 percent of the city’s total usage to 40 percent, withdrawing more from Cheney. City officials also began using treated water from the Little Arkansas River to artificially recharge the aquifer.
The result is that aquifer levels have risen compared to the record low levels of 1993, despite the drought and the increased irrigation pumping it caused.
“For the foreseeable future, Wichita has a high-quality, sustainable, reliable water source,” King says. “Right now we’re taking steps to make sure that continues to be the case in our future.”
McPherson found itself in a similar situation a few years ago, with one major complication: no reservoir to provide an alternative water source to the Equus Bed.
“We just don’t have that option because we’re 100 percent groundwater-dependent,” says Tim Maier, general manager of the city’s board of public utilities.
So to ward off a plume of calcium and chloride caused by old oil activity, McPherson entered into a unique agreement with a company involved in the modern oil industry.
The city signed a contract with the National Cooperative Refinery Association (NCRA) to provide 700 gallons per minute of wastewater from the city’s water treatment plant to provide cooling during the refinery process at NCRA’s McPherson plant.
NCRA is also constructing a treatment facility that will allow it to pump and use the contaminated chloride water creeping toward McPherson. Once completed, the plant will reduce its aquifer use by 2 million gallons per day, keeping water pressure up and chloride out.
“We all should be pumping less so hopefully the salt won’t move as quickly,” Maier says.
The McPherson agreement is highlighted in the 50-year water plan as one to emulate.
The water plan is about to move into its first stages — with selection of a Blue Ribbon panel to mull statewide conservation solutions and a series of five-member regional teams to find local ones — as McClaskey and others seek legislative changes.
For the multi-phase plan to be successful, it will take hundreds of relatively small-scale efforts like the NCRA agreement in McPherson and the LEMA in Sheridan County that eventually add up to big water savings for the state.
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.