Purchase photos

GMD outlines conservation plan

5/15/2014

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

DIGHTON -- It's going to take an overwhelming favorable vote before board members of the state's first and most depleted groundwater management district even agree to move ahead with a plan to cut water use by approximately 20 percent.

"If it doesn't pass the 67-percent threshold, it's a dead issue," said Greg Graff, a Wichita County irrigator and president of the board of Western Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 1.

Graff spoke of the requirements at the first of what would be a string of daily meetings this week in the five counties -- Lane, Scott, Wichita, Greeley and Wallace -- in the district.

Voting on the proposal begins June 9, but the results won't be known until the next week when the board opens a series of sealed envelopes containing tally sheets compiled by independent observers, in most instances county clerks.

While the plan didn't meet much resistance at the Dighton meeting, district members expected objections at meetings in Sharon Springs on Tuesday and at Friday's Scott City meeting.

Whether those objections will be enough to torpedo the plan remains uncertain.

Already, irrigators on both sides of the aisle are questioning if it goes far enough -- or if there's any reason to move ahead with what would become only the second local enhanced management area in the state since the idea became law two years ago.

The first LEMA, as it's popularly called, was implemented at the start of 2013 in Sheridan County, a move partly designed to benefit Hoxie Feedyard, a massive economic force in the area.

Feedyard manager Scott Foote, whose family owns the feedyard, as well as those in Oakley and Lane County Feeders north of Dighton, listened Monday as GMD manager Jan King explained the proposal.

Foote said Sheridan County created the state's first LEMA and used an average of 10.3 inches in the program's first year, below the target of 11 inches per acre.

"It's been good," he said. "I know everyone was scared about it. We're at 10.3 inches, and everybody is hanging in there."

The GMD No. 1 plan is more complicated than the Sheridan plan, which simply limited the amount of water that can be used during the life of the five-year plan.

GMD No. 1 is proposing a six-year plan.

But because there already has been extensive depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer in the district, for some, there won't be any reductions.

Holders of vested water rights -- those dating to before Kansas passed its water rights law -- won't be included in any of the reductions unless they voluntarily join the plan. King said there are only 145 vested users, "and the majority of them are in Scott County."

Bottom line, water rights holders in the plan will be limited to using 8 inches of water annually, although a six-year flex program could let irrigators use greater amounts in a single year, provided they don't exceed the total amount allocated for the six-year period.

While many irrigators already are using 8 inches or less to grow crops, the majority of the irrigators in the district range from 10 to 11 inches of water per acre.

The vested rights and the already reduced water use likely will keep the district from reaching its target of a 20-percent reduction.

Not everyone favors the idea.

"We're in the middle of a historic drought," one man said. "Why couldn't we do it in a district that pumps more water? We're already pumping less than Sheridan County."

"We've got to do the best we can," King said. "We are the stewards of the water."

But there was sentiment from those who aren't objecting.

"I think the whole thing might be academic," another irrigator said. "We may not need this reduction. We may just have to quit."

If the plan fails to get the two-thirds vote, both King and Graff said they'd be back before the district's members.

"If it's not this, we need to do something," King said. "We'll probably come back. It's my job to try to make this water last as long as possible."