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Water vision

7/29/2014

The 50-Year Vision for the Future of Water in Kansas sounds grand, doesn't it? State water officials are working with stakeholders throughout Kansas to develop a plan that will be presented at a conference in November, then given to the Legislature next session. Hundreds of meetings have taken place with thousands of interested individuals in hopes of offering the proper balance between sustainability and maintaining a strong economy.

The 50-Year Vision for the Future of Water in Kansas sounds grand, doesn't it? State water officials are working with stakeholders throughout Kansas to develop a plan that will be presented at a conference in November, then given to the Legislature next session. Hundreds of meetings have taken place with thousands of interested individuals in hopes of offering the proper balance between sustainability and maintaining a strong economy.

That we need such conversations is without question. The Ogallala Aquifer, the underground engine powering agricultural endeavors in the western half of the state, is being depleted at an alarming rate. If current practices remain unchanged, the aquifer reportedly will be 70-percent depleted in 50 years.

Even with the best of intentions, however, the ideas presented thus far have been somewhat timid. Included in the 170-some action items in draft form are a suggestion to reduce individual water consumption 20 percent by 2035, a 20-percent decrease in water pumped from the aquifer by 2065, increasing enforcement for overpumping, closing overappropriated areas, and modifying the state's priority system of first-in-time, first-in-right in areas with limited recharge. There also are calls for education efforts and exploring the transfer of waters from other areas such as the Missouri River.

It would be difficult to find a more useless suggestion than the 20-percent decrease in water pumped from the Ogallala by the year 2065. That would be one year after the aquifer is 70-percent depleted -- and many knowledgable people consider that timeline extremely optimistic.

Yet to surface in the plan is a state directive for irrigators to stop using so much water. Irrigators account for more than 90 percent of the state's total water usage on an annual basis.

But they also account for a healthy percentage of the state's gross domestic product. And Kansas Agriculture Secretary Jackie McClaskey has said the plan seeks to "balance conservation with economic growth."

McClaskey, Kansas Water Office Director Tracy Streeter and others are hoping that balance is found during the public input portion, and the resulting plan is driven by volunteer efforts from the ground up.

We find it hard to believe that will happen.

Not when it was the state that began treating water rights as private property instead of a common good. Not when irrigators themselves are running the irrigation and groundwater districts. Not when short-term gains of individuals are pitted against long-term sustainability for all. Not when federal policies subsidize the planting of water-intensive crops in near-desert conditions. Not when drought exacerbates the protectionist tendencies of those with wells.

We're not suggesting irrigators should shoulder the burden of devising a solution -- or even that they're the bad guys. During the past 70 years, they've simply responded to state and federal laws that encouraged the aquifer's over-development.

It is time to stop postponing the inevitable.

"The assumption is we will continue to use the Ogallala but not make major changes in what we're doing out there," said Mary Fund, program director of the Kansas Rural Center in Whiting. "In that sense, the 50-year vision gets us out 50 years. We're just kicking the can down the road on water out there."

Wholesale irrigation reductions will not happen without prompt -- and forcible -- action from the state. What water is left in the Ogallala Aquifer belongs to the people of Kansas, not merely to those pulling it up to the surface. Lawmakers will need to decide concrete steps, then pass them into law.

We are beyond the point of volunteer reductions, visions and navel-gazing. The future of Kansas is at stake.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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