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'Vision' draws crowd, questions

3/11/2014

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Monday morning's meeting on the future of water in Kansas attracted nearly 70 people, many of whom had plenty to say about water planning and water conservation in the state.

Not all of it was complimentary, and one person suggested the meeting should have taken place instead in the evening to allow an even greater number of people to attend.

Even with that, the meeting drew people from across the area, including a number of municipalities and water conservationists.

Attending were representatives of Hays and Ellis County, the cities of McCracken, Ellis, Victoria, WaKeeney and Russell, Fort Hays State University, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Kansas State University Extension and the Post Rock Rural Water District. Several water conservationists from Russell, Bogue and Ransom were on hand as well.

The meeting is all part of the development of a 50-year vision on the future of water in Kansas.

It's an idea first floated at a meeting of economic advisers to Gov. Sam Brownback, who then pitched the plan at the conference on water.

Since then, a team of representatives from the Kansas Water Office and the Kansas Department of Agriculture have been conducting meetings across the state. The Hays meeting, however, is the first general meeting. Most of the previous meetings, and there have been more than 50, have been with stakeholder groups, notably irrigators.

At Monday's meeting, Kansas Water Office planner Susan Metzger said a series of public meeting will be upcoming, but they will be after the first draft of the vision plan is written.

At the outset, Ellis County Commissioner Swede Holmgren voiced concern about the Hays area and its reliance on a series of relatively small streams for water supplies.

"I'm not here to scare anybody," he said. "I'm not here to ruin economic development. A few good rains are not going to solve anything."

Instead, he threw out the idea of a pipeline, perhaps pumping water from the abundant supply of Ogallala Aquifer water in Nebraska south to the area.

"At the end of this vision," he said of the plan to determine where the state wants to be in 50 years, "there are probably eight or nine people in this room that will be alive then. Until then, we've got a tough row to hoe."

Questions were raised about the fines that can be levied on irrigators who over-pump their allocation of water, and Division of Water Resources water rights administrator Lane Letourneau said the state is working to boost the penalty.

But it's a daunting task, he said in response to questions about the agency's ability to police irrigators.

The DWR office in Stockton, he said, has only four people.

Bogue water conservationist Bob Hooper said he's troubled by the state's apparent reliance on the idea of local control and stakeholders.

"I am a stakeholder, and I'm a local person," he said, even though he's not able to have a say in many groundwater issues affecting the region.

He's served as a member of the Solomon River Basin Advisory Committee, offering advice to the KWO, the state's water planning agency.

In his time serving on that board, "I think we've basically accomplished nothing."

While he voiced concern with the idea of pumping water from either Nebraska or the Missouri River, he worries about the federal farm bill subsidizing water intensive crops such as corn in water-short western Kansas.

Jude Gottschalk voiced concern about the struggles Hays has gone through to find another supply of water.

"It seems like every direction they try to move, the more roadblocks put by the state or the Division of Water Resources," he said. "We're talking about a lot of things. But it seems like that's all we've done for 20 years. Maybe its time for the needs of the majority to outweigh the needs of the few."

Another person attending urged more efficiency in irrigation.

Ellis County farmer Lance Russell, however, said irrigators are "among the most progressive, most efficient" in the state.