Water well plan could be problematic for Elkhart

1/14/2012

By AMY BICKEL

By AMY BICKEL

Special to The Telegram

ELKHART — A Morton County commissioner is the center of an issue that could affect this county seat's water supply.

Water in these parts, after all, is a precious commodity — especially in an area where the average rainfall is just 17 inches and the region is suffering from a severe drought. Moreover, the underground reservoir, the Ogallala Aquifer, has been declining for decades. Also, this part of Kansas is closed to new water rights.

However, just across the border in Oklahoma, the plains still are open to well development.

Thus, early last year, Elkhart businessman and landowner Bob Boaldin had a company drill a water well just across the border into Oklahoma. His plan, water officials say, is to pipe some of the water into Kansas to irrigate his crops.

Just across the border, however, a well owned by the city of Elkhart, where Boaldin, during the 1970s, served as mayor, sits less than 200 feet away. The spacing issue is a threat to the city's water supply.

Elkhart, population 2,200, isn't like most county seats in Kansas, which typically are in the center of the county. Elkhart literally butts up to the Kansas/Oklahoma border. The county seat used to be in Richfield, a more centrally located community. Nevertheless, several battles for the title ensued, and Elkhart, a much larger town, secured the honor in 1961.

Both Morton and neighboring Texas County, Okla., share the same visible boundary — a roadway called A Boulevard to the north and Road A to the south. Besides sharing a road, both Morton County and Texas County share the same water source, the Ogallala, which flows back and forth underground no matter the boundary.

Aboveground, however, the boundary is steadfast when it comes to the two states' laws. Water laws in Oklahoma differ from water laws in Kansas, said Kansas Chief Engineer David Barfield with the state's Division of Water Resources. Oklahoma laws are not as comprehensive as Kansas law.

And, despite both states having well spacing regulations of a minimum 1,320 feet, there is no groundwater compact between the two states that would help the situation, said Mark Rude, manager of Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3. The only compact, ratified by the Kansas Legislature in 1966, administers the Arkansas River Basin. That compact, however, is silent on two issues: whether it pertains to groundwater and how the compact treats the interstate transportation of water within the same basin or sub basin.

Last spring, a company hired by Boaldin began drilling a well just across the border into Oklahoma, which drew concerns from the city of Elkhart, said Bob Sanbo, Oklahoma's water permitting section head.

In Oklahoma, Sanbo said, "When you drill a well, you drill it at your own risk." Landowners don't need a permit to drill a well. They do need a permit to pump water from it.

Sanbo's staff began to research the issue.

"We did find a well 150-plus feet" from Elkhart's well, Sanbo said in July 2011. However, after discussing the problem with Boaldin, Sanbo indicated the landowner decided to cap the well.

"In the end, he sent a letter asking for the process to plug the well, and that was our understanding, that he was going to plug it and go through the process," Sanbo said.

Boaldin, however, doesn't intend to cap his well.

In his application to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board dated Aug. 10, 2011, Boaldin's well would pump roughly 1,280 acre feet a year. About 1,200 acres would be irrigated in Texas County and 695 acres would be piped into Morton County. Boaldin indicated on the application that he plans to irrigate corn.

A hearing on Boaldin's application, which includes three wells in all, is slated for 9 a.m. Jan. 24 in Woodward, Okla., Sanbo said. However, Elkhart officials have asked the Oklahoma water board to reschedule the hearing.

Burke Griggs, legal counsel for the Kansas Division of Water Resources, plans to be at the meeting, said Kansas' Chief Engineer David Barfield. Griggs outlined 13 points in his testimony to Oklahoma's board. One concern is whether Boaldin needs a Kansas permit to irrigate water from Oklahoma on a crop field in Kansas.

That includes if the water coming from Oklahoma has any impact on Kansas water rights, Barfield said.

"He already has water coming in and he is planning to bring more water into Kansas," Barfield said, adding the state is still investigating the situation. "We think there are three or four pipelines coming in."

Barfield said the state isn't attempting to bar Boaldin from bringing Oklahoma water into Kansas. Officials just want him to obtain the proper permits.

The other concern is the distance of Elkhart's well.

Elkhart has three primary wells, groundwater manager Rude said. The well in question is the city's best well. This well has a priority date of 1979 and is authorized for 1,000 gallons a minute — roughly 120 million gallons a year.

It could have a dramatic effect on Elkhart's water supply, Rude said.

"It is intolerable to have a large well proposed right across the road, less than 200 feet from the city of Elkhart."

Even if Oklahoma officials would deny the request and require Boaldin to move the well a quarter-mile away, it doesn't necessarily answer other issues, some of which, Rude said, Kansas officials are still investigating.

Moreover, said Sanbo, the spacing issue isn't black or white. Boaldin technically isn't breaking any Oklahoma water laws.

Costly situation

Rude said he doesn't know why Boaldin decided to continue with the permitting process or why he chose to drill a well that is so close in proximity to Elkhart's well.

Drilling a water well, after all, is quite an investment, Rude noted. It could cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 depending on the well.

Multiple calls to Boaldin were not returned. Boaldin and his wife, Dian, own Epic Touch based in Elkhart, a company that provides phone, cable and Internet service to the region.

Elkhart City Administrator Tim Hardy directed all calls until after the hearing to City Attorney William Graybill. Graybill is out of the state this week and could not be reached.

Barfield said water issues between Kansas and Oklahoma aren't common, but they do occur. He doesn't know of any well spacing issues that have crept up in the recent past.

Regardless of the boundaries, Oklahoma "does have spacing criteria that is very similar to ours and that is the logic — that Mr. Boaldin's well is directly threatening to impair" Elkhart's well.

Kansas officials want to continue to discuss the issue of interstate, intrabasin and exportation of groundwater with Oklahoma officials the next time the Arkansas River Compact meets.

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