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Threats rise along with water use

4/14/2013

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

SCOTT CITY -- Sheriffs and county attorneys in most drought-ravaged western Kansas counties soon will be receiving a friendly letter from Kim Christianson, the Division of Water Resources' chief legal counsel.

It will detail state laws that can be violated when threats are made to state water employees who visit water well sites to check and ensure the water use law is being followed -- even in the face of an ongoing drought.

Christianson raised the issue recently before the state-appointed Ogallala Aquifer Advisory Committee at its meeting in Scott City.

"We're seeing a heck of a lot of over-pumping," she said of irrigators using more than their annual allocation of water.

While she said DWR has streamlined the process for hearings on water use violations, she said some agency "employees are getting physically and verbally threatened."

No one's been hurt, she said, as most of the problems have been verbal, but the comments have suggested physical threats. Those threats have included chaining DWR employees to a pole, running them over with a tractor or shooting them if they return.

DWR field employees over the course of the year will often spot-check water meters. The frequency increases because of the drought, when it's nip-and-tuck on whether an irrigated crop will have enough water.

Christianson said the letters going out simply will help the agency reinforce its concern about employee safety.

The stakes have been higher because of the drought, as some crops have struggled through the heat and dry weather.

As a result, there's been a sharp increase in the number of irrigators using more water than they are allocated.

In the central part of the state, there were about 750 cases of over-pumping last year, according to Lane Letourneau, water appropriations manager for DWR. That's up from about 200 the previous year.

Irrigators in northwest Kansas fared much better, he said, mainly because they started out in better shape -- with markedly better soil moisture conditions.

OACC members also talked about the multi-year flex accounts designed to offer some leeway for irrigators in times of drought or abundant rainfall.

But there also was a request from the Kansas Farm Bureau to reopen the program to ensure seniority rights are protected in the event of water marketing.

Currently, when a farmer enrolls in a five-year MYFA, the permit is suspended for the term of the program.

However, when there's an issue involving administration of water rights -- when water use by one permit holder affects another water right -- the issue is settled based on seniority.

"As Kansas moves into a time of greater marketability of limited water supply, priority of water rights must remain intact while protecting the basic tenets of our water law so that investment-based expectations can be realized," the KFB said in a statement.

While the proposal was discussed, along with other possible shortcomings in the program, OACC members agreed to bring the issue up when it meets later this year.

If changes are recommended, committee members hope to have those ready to go well before the 2014 legislature convenes. The group plans to also look at any other water proposals it wants to present to the legislature.

No future meeting dates have been set.