Local control over use of water discussed at farm show forum

1/28/2013

By RACHAEL GRAY

By RACHAEL GRAY

rgray@gctelegram.com

New proposed water laws in Kansas may give local stakeholders more control on how and when they use their water rights.

Water officials from around the state met with stakeholders Saturday at the annual Farm and Ranch Show to discuss what these new rights mean for Kansans.

In 2012, lawmakers approved the creation of "local enhanced management areas," or LEMAS. Those allow groundwater management districts more control on water, which is useful in areas experiencing shortages, water officials said Saturday.

According to Wayne Bossert, from the Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District 4, Sheridan 6, where the first LEMA was put into affect in Sheridan and Thomas counties, water usage has been cut by 20 percent over five years. The measure is designed to extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer.

Bossert said the district came up with an allocation system that allows stakeholders to pump 55 acre-inches for five years.

"Now that averages 11 inches per year. But if he wants to pump 18 inches for three years, that's fine. That's the flexibility you have," he said.

Bossert said that's what is working in Sheridan 6, but each local district should decide what's best for its stakeholders.

"That's the beauty of it — the local control," he said.

Another proposal would expand the multi-year flex account program created by the Legislature last session, to allow water rights holders with unused water quantities at the end of the current five-year flex program to roll them into another multi-year program.

Tom Wright, Lakin farmer who attended the water talks Saturday, said he thinks the new proposals will be beneficial for farmers.

"Well, it's for five years. And you could use the flex account to water for four years. Maybe that fifth year it will rain. Or you could see how much you have left that fifth year and plant a crop that uses what you have left," he said.

Wright farms corn, sunflowers and wheat in Kearny County.

Mark Rude, director of Groundwater Management District 3, said the new measures are important for southwest Kansas producers, who use 48 percent of the state's water.

Rude said the recent drought gives cause for stepping back to look and evaluate how the resource is used.

"No one does better at conservation than the farmers and producers who use it," he said.

Rude said the conversation about water rights will continue at meetings Feb. 12 at the Finnup Center at Lee Richardson Zoo and Feb. 13 in Gray County at the 4-H Building in Cimarron.

"We can get down to how things are working for you as water users and how we can help you out — how we can do better conserving and saving the supply and also augmenting the resource," he said.

In August, Gov. Sam Brownback visited Garden City for the Ogallala Stakeholder meeting.

Brownie Wilson, from the Kansas Geological Survey, who spoke at the meeting, said the Ogallala aquifer has been declining over time. The major declines started in 1996 and were heightened in 2000 when southwest Kansas began to experience drought conditions.

The depth of the aquifer is about 100 feet and is dropping over time, Wilson said.

In extremely dry places where more irrigation is needed for agriculture, the aquifer is down to about 90 feet, including areas between Liberal and Hugoton, parts of Wallace County and areas between Hoxie and Colby.

That area includes Sheridan 6, he said.

In August, Brownback urged stakeholders to take control of their own water, and said conservation isn't something that comes from a top-down approach. In March, Brownback signed House Bill 2451, which eliminates the state's "use it or lose it" water policy and gives landowners incentive to conserve water because they won't feel that they must use their maximum amount of water when they don't need to just so they don't lose water rights, he said.

He also signed Senate Bill 272, which amends multi-year flex accounts to expand irrigators' capabilities and options so they can manage their crop water without increasing long-term water use under their water right, he said.

Discussions to come up with a plan to conserve water began last year in Colby at a summit on the Ogallala Aquifer.

The Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, is a vast but shallow underground water table located beneath the Great Plains. It is one of the world's largest aquifers and covers an area that includes portions of eight states: Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

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