Brownback Distracted by Global Issues at Kansas Water Conference

Nov 27, 2015

Credit Amy Bickel / Hutchinson News

From Kansas Agland:

MANHATTAN – Stakeholders gathered to hear about Kansas’ efforts to preserve water – but Gov. Sam Brownback admitted he was a little distracted with world issues.

Not that water wasn’t discussed at Brownback’s fourth annual Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas. Nor did Brownback minimize the topic.

“I appreciate your heart, I appreciate your passion, and I appreciate commitment to do something hard because it is difficult,” he said of taking action on the state’s dwindling water supply. “Getting this done is a hard thing.”

However, before delving further into the water topic, Brownback spoke of his opposition to bringing both Guantanamo Bay detainees and Syrian refugees into Kansas.

“I’ve taken a position that a majority of the U.S. governors have taken – that we should not be bringing Syrian refugees into Kansas at this point of time because terrorist groups have targeted this population,” he said, then adding, “I don’t want to invite terror on our own soil any more than the difficulties we already wrestle with.”

In light of the attacks in Paris, it is a robust debate, he added.

“I’ve been a long supporter of refugees, but I’m not about doing that if it is going to jeopardize the security of U.S.citizens,” he said. “That is not what we should do. And we have millions of refugees around the world and there are population pools that aren’t radicalized that could come into the United States. And why we would want to invite this at this time here? I don’t understand it when our primary obligation is safety.”

Talking is over

After a few moments, Brownback, standing at a podium overlooking 600 agriculture leaders and farmers from across the state, refocused the conversation to the reason for the two-day conference he started in 2011.

Water, he said, is “a little better subject but a tough subject, too.”

There has been plenty of discussion on how to solve the water problem, he said. After 500 meetings and 15,000 comments, now it is the time to implement the state’s 50-year water vision to preserve and extend its water supply.

“There are going to be disputes. There is going to be some pushing back and forth. There’s going to be some people not so happy,” Brownback said. “But you know at the end of the day – if we don’t do this, our future is secure ... There is a lot less water and a lot less options for our children and grandchildren if we don’t act.{p dir=”ltr”}”We know this (Ogallala) aquifer,” he added. “We can’t say we need to study it more, do this do that. ... We set a vision – this is what we are going to do. Now is the time to do it.”

Water became one of his top priorities shortly after taking office. Two years ago, Brownback unveiled his agenda, saying the state must move forward to preserve its natural resource. He made it clear that the issue is one he wants answered – and soon.

The facts, after all, are straightforward: Kansas farmers and others across the state have for several decades been consuming groundwater faster than nature can recharge it. If Kansans continue down the current path, the state’s water resources could be nearly spent in 50 years.

At the conference last November, Brownback and his staff unveiled the state’s 50-year vision. The plan included creating basin teams to come up with goals on how to solve water problems in each area.

Brownback also said at that time he wanted 75 percent of the goals listed in phase one of the plan to be underway by the next conference.

“We’ve got this plan in place, but now comes the hard part,” he said Wednesday morning. “This is where the rubber meets the road.”

Quick action

Wednesday’s meeting was about highlighting progress, said Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office.

Action has been happening in the past year. Fourteen separate stakeholder groups formed in January and began tackling Brownback’s directive to come up with goals and solutions for their own areas. The Kansas Water Authority approved those regional goals in August.

Already, about 80 percent of the first-phase project have begun – surpassing Brownback’s target, Streeter said. That includes implementation of the regional committees, developing an online water use reporting system and targeting practices to help curb sedimentation in streams and reservoirs.

A few others:

  • The state will soon begin a groundwater modeling project in all five groundwater management districts to help adequately assess groundwater conditions and recharge rates. The first GMD targeted is the Equus Beds.
  • The state’s first water conservation area – a tool approved by lawmakers during the 2015 session, was recently created, Streeter announced Wednesday. Gerald and Linda Franklin, a Goodland farm couple, began voluntarily conserving water using the concept. They already were pumping less than their allocation – as well as 4 inches an acre below the area’s Groundwater Management District average, said Lane Letourneau, water appropriations manager with the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Their average use as been 2 inches less than the net irrigation requirement for their region.
  • Farmers and businesses are investing in new irrigation technology.
  • The state is forming an educational task force to target students, organizations and others on water conservation.

Also, dirt removal on John Redmond Reservoir’s $25 million dredging project begins Thursday, Brownback said. The Coffey County reservoir built in the 1960s is about half-filled with sediment.

Streeter said phase two projects in the plan could soon begin as well but noted resources are limited. That is why a blue ribbon task force committee – called for in the plan – has formed and already is discussing possible funding sources to implement projects.

Some of those funds could go toward projects and goals outlined by the new committees, including those situated in western Kansas’ Ogallala region, where the vast aquifer varies in depth and usable lifetime. Some areas have 10 to 25 years of irrigation left. Others have more than 100 years left.

In the Upper Arkansas area – which extends from Hamilton to Ford counties, goals include extending the Ogallala’s usable lifetime for at least another 25 years through water conservation and incentive-based programs.

Meanwhile, the group set a goal of slowing Ogallala depletion by 25 percent in 10 years by maximizing the opportunity to use new irrigation technology.

In the Upper Smoky Hill Region, leaders want to reduce irrigation use by 25 percent by 2025 – with targets based on recent average-pumping history for each water right.

But is it enough?

The western Kansas landscape where Randy Hayzlett’s ancestors first sunk an irrigation well near the Arkansas River in the 1950s still looks the same from the surface.

But 60 years later, some of the wells on his Lakin-area farm have gone down. The Ark River rarely flows and some of Hayzlett’s neighbors in the sand hills have shut down their irrigation wells for good.

He was part of the state water talks back in 1993, he said. This year is different.

“We’re more aggressive now. I think there is more realization” about the Ogallala’s situation, said Hayzlett, who added he continues to make efficiency upgrades on his irrigation systems.

Sen. Larry Powell of Garden City added he could see progress happening, noting the help from legislation passed last session.

Getting irrigators and others to buy into the concept isn’t necessarily easy, but Richard Wenstrom, who farms near Kinsley, said he see progress being made. An innovator himself when it comes to finding ways to conserve water, Wenstrom began gathering data and monitoring water use on his farm back in the 1970s, making him one of the first to do so in Kansas. He is known as one of the first large-scale irrigators who used soil-based irrigation scheduling techniques.

The state has been in water discussions before. “Everyone knows the drill,” Wenstrom said.

Implementation is another matter.

Pratt County farmer Berry Bortz, who chairs the Great Bend Prairie basin advisory team, said his team has come up with workable goals. But the hard part is upcoming – convincing folks of the importance of water conservation.

“The goals need some ownership,” Bortz said. “Without ownership, we might not get enough follow-through.”