While concerns remain, a show of hands during Wednesday’s informational meeting in Garden City about a proposal to form a local management plan to address groundwater concerns indicated a majority of the 90-some farmers and producers in attendance generally agreed something should be done to extend the life of water resources.

Local water right owners in northern Finney and Kearny counties are seeking ways to reduce the rate of decline in the Ogallala Aquifer in the region, which has seen declines of more than 70 feet in the water table over the past 10 years.

A steering committee of about a dozen farmers has met frequently over the past several months about creating a Kearny Finney LEMA, or Local Enhanced Management Area, in a swath north of the Arkansas River in Finney and Kearny counties from Lakin to Garden City.

Steering committee members spent a couple hours Wednesday presenting their proposed Kearny Finney LEMA (KML) with an eye toward gathering input, and buy-in, from producers.

Dwane Roth, a Holcomb farmer and steering committee member, said committee members all have irrigation wells ranging in capacity from 200 gallons per minute to 1,200 gpm.

“We all have wells that are depleting,” he said. “Basically, all of us know each other. We’re competitors, but also neighbors. We’re trying to come up with a formula or some way we can reduce our water longevity. We all have succession plans. We want to do that same thing with water. We want to be able to have sustainability of water for the future.”

According to a handout from the meeting, if adopted the proposed LEMA will restrict all appropriation water rights within its boundaries to extend the usable water supplies throughout the region. LEMA allocations for a five-year period for irrigation use would be calculated based on a reduction of 15 percent from historical usage from 2006 to 2015. The reductions would only be assessed to groundwater rights.

DWR estimated a 10 percent reduction in average use would slow the aquifer water level decline by 38 percent.

The proposal, as it currently stands, would affect only appropriated irrigation groundwater rights, but vested rights would be encouraged to participate voluntarily and non-irrigation users would be encouraged to implement conservation plans. It also would seek to put in place a process to give consideration to irrigators’ past conservation efforts.

Irrigation makes up 94 percent of the reported water use within the proposed LEMA boundaries, and therefore provides the greatest opportunity for conservation. Other non-irrigation uses such as stock water, municipal, industrial and recreation will be encouraged to conform to written conservation plans and voluntarily reduce water use where feasible.

Mike Standley, a steering committee member, said committee members don’t agree on every aspect of the proposal, but it’s as close as they have come so far to a consensus.

“This is a work in progress,” he said. “The goal is to make this a plan everybody can follow. We don’t want to make it to where it cuts people’s income ... but have the flexibility to continue to do what you’re doing.”

Standley said the steering committee has discussed several different plans, including ones with 20 and 25 percent reductions and a phased in approach, before choosing to bring forward the 15 percent reduction plan for consideration.

Mike Meyer, with the Division of Water Resources, said a LEMA can provide flexibilities that allow irrigators to adapt or change and to “basically control your destiny within this time period and plan for the future.”

Under the proposal, a five-year water allocation would be calculated for each well based on its usage between 2006 and 2015, factoring in the proposed 15 percent reduction, essentially creating a savings account for that five-year period. Instead of a fixed, per-year allocation, Meyer said, the proposal’s flexibility allows an irrigator to use more water one year and less in another, so long as they don’t exceed that overall five-year allocation.

Another aspect providing flexibility is wells within a consolidated well unit (connected by a pipe), or within two miles, could share the combined quantity of individual LEMA allocated quantities as long as the annual authorized quantity of any individual well isn’t exceeded during a calendar year. Meyer said there are also cost-share opportunities within the LEMA for improved irrigation technology and soil moisture probes.

To be implemented, the proposal needs to go to the Groundwater Management District, which has the authority to recommend approval to the chief engineer at the Kansas Department of Agriculture — Division of Water Resources. By law, two public hearings need to be held so the chief engineer can ensure a LEMA is needed and is in the public interest. The steering committee’s goal is to have the proposed LEMA in place by Jan. 1, 2018.

Committee member Randy Richmeier, an owner/operator who farms roughly in the middle of the proposed LEMA, said the process won’t advance without public support. There is a second informational meeting about the proposal scheduled for May 9, a day before a Groundwater Management District 3 board meeting where the proposal could be presented, assuming there’s a consensus that enough support exists to proceed.

If it does advance that quickly, the GMD board could send its formal request to the DWR in June and have public meetings in September and November/December.

Some in the audience thought that timeline was a bit aggressive, considering Wednesday was the first chance many in the room had to see and hear about the proposal. One person noted that between now and May 9, a lot of people will be busy planting corn, and felt there should be more opportunities to look at the plan before it moves forward.

“We’re going to keep inserting meetings until we get to a solution about how to finalize this equation,” Roth said.

Some of the other questions raised by those in attendance included a desire for more information about what constitutes consideration for previous conservation efforts, whether the LEMA boundaries should be increased, and whether other plans should be looked at more.

The steering committee urged people to write down their questions and send them to the steering committee members and bring them to the next informational meeting. They also urged producers to contact the DWR and look at their average water use and see how the proposal might affect them.

Another informational meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 9 at the Clarion Inn in Garden City.

Presentation and meeting materials, as well as a contact form, are available at www.kfl2017.weebly.com.

Contact Scott Aust at saust@gctelegram.com