Water debate will return to Kansas Legislature amid staggering drought

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Ogallala Aquifer expected to show huge declines this year

Legislators are almost certain to place the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer among their top priorities as the drought bearing down on Western Kansas hits the already depleted water supply.

Every inch of Kansas is either abnormally dry or in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with most of the western half of the state in either an “extreme” or “exceptional” one. 


In Western Kansas, where there’s little surface water to be found, crop irrigation is expected to once again drive big declines in the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest underground water sources. Parts of the aquifer that still have water left to pump could see quadruple the losses of a normal year. 

“We’re anticipating water levels are going to be down probably everywhere in the aquifer,” said Brownie Wilson, a researcher for the Kansas Geological Survey.

But Gov. Laura Kelly told a crowd in Manhattan last month that Kansans didn’t need the drought to remind them of the severe state of the aquifer. 

She said “waiting for a miracle is not an option.” 

“I give you my word that protecting our water supply will remain a top priority in Topeka over the next four years,” Kelly said. “I refuse to allow the can to be kicked any further down the road.”

Kelly’s pledge adds urgency to the work Kansas legislators started in the last couple of years, highlighting the decline of the aquifer and looking for ways to tackle it. Last year, the state fully funded its water plan for the first time since 2008 and started an audit of groundwater management in Western Kansas. 

But legislators’ efforts to pass monumental legislation overhauling state agencies and exerting more pressure on local officials to conserve water fell short. The bill was gutted in committee. 

Last year’s chair, Rep. Ron Highland, didn’t seek reelection. Now, Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City, will lead. Minnix, a farmer and rancher who says he has been trying to conserve for 20 years, said new members would have to be brought up to speed. But he’ll encourage them to study on their own. 

“We’re not going to start from scratch,” he said, adding that he hopes to move forward as quickly as possible.

Rep. Lindsay Vaughn served as the ranking Democrat on the House Water Committee for the last two sessions as members studied the state of the aquifer and attempted to overhaul water management in Kansas.

The committee didn’t pass the major legislation Highland and Vaughn hoped. Minnix was among the legislators who voted against it. But Vaughn thinks there’s momentum. 

“I think that really was a launchpad for some of the current dialogue,” Vaughn said. “And just based on what I’ve heard, the interest is really continuing into next session and has continued in the interim.” 

Vaughn said she’s heartened by Kelly’s commitment to water policy and the Kansas Water Authority’s recommendation that the state move away from its de facto policy of depleting the aquifer. 

A center-pivot irrigation system sits idle near Colby, Kansas, in December. Lawmakers this spring will look for ways to conserve groundwater in parched Western Kansas. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

When lawmakers return in January, they’ll be faced with the question of just how to reverse a problem that their predecessors haven’t gotten their arms around for decades. Scientists and policymakers have known for at least 40 years that the Ogallala is in decline. They allowed groundwater management districts to manage the aquifer locally — with varying success. 

Those districts opposed the overhaul that would have created more state oversight of groundwater. So did the Kansas Farm Bureau, which backed the amendment that gutted the legislation. 

The committee member who offered the amendment, Rep. Joe Newland, stepped down to become president of the Kansas Farm Bureau. 

KFB’s public policy director, Kent Askren, said funding would be a big issue. 

He said he thought the Kansas Water Authority’s desire to have a supply indefinitely into the future was a good one. 

“But implementation is the real challenge,” he said. “And I think that’s where the legislature will have to hear from a lot of different interests because Western Kansas and … any economy thrives upon having an abundant, good quality water supply.” 

Askren said the state needed locally developed strategies to meet the goal of stopping decline of the aquifer.

“I think the worst thing that we could do is to take a goal and come up with a single solution out of Topeka that is then handed off to Western Kansas to implement,” he said. 

Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Kansas, said he hopes to see not only more funding but innovative policy “to disincentivize the continual draining of the aquifer.”

“I’m very optimistic,” Pistora said. “And I think that’s because our legislators know, everyone knows, that something has to be done. The can has been kicked too far down the road.” 

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: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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