Officials set to present conservation measures




Special to The Telegram

With the state in the grip of long-term drought, but the demand for water unrelenting — particularly in areas experiencing a boom in hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas production — agriculture officials plan to introduce several measures to Kansas lawmakers in coming weeks extending water conservation efforts.

Department of Agriculture staff is still in the process of writing rules for each of the proposals, so details about the measures aren't available, said Mary Geiger, communications director for the department. The agency recently outlined the concepts, however, during a conference call with the Kansas Water Office board of directors.

Some of the proposals build on changes to water law made in 2012, while others are new ideas drafted in part to address water needs for fracking and municipalities facing shortages.

Last year, lawmakers approved creation of "local enhanced management areas" or LEMAs, allowing groundwater management districts more control on water use in areas experiencing temporary supply issues. A management district can initiate a LEMA following a series of public hearings.

The ag department's Division of Water Resources just this week approved the first LEMA in the state, proposed by Groundwater Management District 4 in Northwest Kansas. The intent of the Sheridan 6 LEMA, in Sheridan and Thomas counties, is to cut water use by 20 percent over five years, extending the life of the Ogallala Aquifer.

The newest proposal, also requested by GMDs and local governments, is to allow enhanced management areas adjacent to but outside of GMD district boundaries. Stakeholders could bring up the issue through the local board of county commissioners, and it would go through the same public hearing process, Geiger 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.

The current program lets water users obtain a "term permit" so they can exceed permitted water use during drought years, and offset that with less in other years, managing the use over a five year period instead of annually.

"If at the end of the five years, the landowner has 3 inches of water left over, rather than have them face losing those inches, this would allow them to roll the unused portion of the first MUFA into the next one," Geiger said. "It further promotes the shift from the 'use it or lose it' mindset."

The department also supports implementing a new "limited transfer permit" to allow a short-term new use of water with a corresponding reduction in the base water right.

The permits main use would be limited transfers of water right allocations for horizontal fracking, construction or for municipal use.

"If an irrigator with 100 acre feet of water wanted to lease or rent a few acre feet of water, they can only pump what was not leased," Kim Christiansen, chief legal counsel with the agency advised the water board.

The temporary permit would be for one year, and then the full water right would return to the holder.

The system would be beneficial in areas where all water rights are closed to new users. It would also put a higher value on water by removing it from the existing temporary permit program, according to the board discussion.

The transfer permit is intended for non-domestic users of more than a million gallons of water. Those needing less would continue to use the temporary permit program now in place.

The department also proposes reducing the number of dams it has jurisdiction over, by increasing the size of dams in the law requiring oversight. Details of that proposal, Geiger said, "are in the very initial stages."

The agency is also proposing a change in its regulatory policy related to enforcement for over pumping, Lane P. Letourneau, Water Appropriation Program Manager advised the board.

In the past, if a water right user over-pumped, they'd receive a notice of non-compliance. Then, if additional violations occurred within a given period of time, the state would assess graduated civil penalties up to a fifth violation, which would result in revoked water rights.

Under the proposed policy change, the water right would be lost for a fourth violation.

If a water user went five years without a violation after a notice, the sanction would expire and the record expunged, Geiger said.

Also, the agency is proposing the notice of non-compliance would attach to the property in land records. So if someone bought the land, it would remain under the original violation schedule, but that historic information would also now be available to the buyer through a title search.

Finally, the agency is proposing publishing the names of violators annually.

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