TOPEKA, Kan. – Members of a Kansas House committee on Thursday approved legislation intended to prompt western Kansas officials to propose ideas to conserve water in the disappearing Ogallala Aquifer.
The legislation — along with a bill dedicating sales tax revenue to funding water projects — passed the House Water Committee in a vocal vote with little opposition. It now moves on to consideration by the entire Kansas House of Representatives.
Both bills are a leap forward for the committee, which two years ago began studying Kansas’s water problems and suggesting possible solutions to the Ogallala’s near-crisis state.
“We think we have a great start on this issue,” said Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City, chairman of the House Water Committee. “We have a long way to go. But this is a really good start.”
The Ogallala Aquifer, which spans several lowland states, is the largest underground freshwater reservoir in the country. After World War II, farmers began pumping water from the aquifer to irrigate crops in arid western Kansas. Less than a century later, the water is running out. Some parts of the aquifer have an estimated lifespan of 10 to 20 years. And a state audit found that the efforts of local groundwater management districts, or GMDs, to save the water table vary widely.
One of the bills, sponsored by State Representative Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, the committee’s ranking minority member, would require GMDs to report more information about their finances and conservation efforts to the state. They should also identify priority areas of their territories and submit plans to the state to conserve groundwater.
“We hope to enable groundwater management districts to identify the most important areas that need to be addressed in relation to the conservation and life extension of the Ogallala Aquifer and then make plans to do so,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn offered a compromise amendment during Thursday’s discussion that clarified some points of the bill at the suggestion of GMDs and agricultural groups.
The bill had broad support, but one committee member, State Representative Brett Fairchild, R-St. John said he will vote against the bill because of concern he has heard from GMDs that the bill creates “paperwork and costs.”
State Representative Kenny Titus, R-Manhattan, said the bill left a lot of flexibility for GMDs to come up with plans based on local inputs. He said he would support it.
“I think this bill strikes a good balance between moving the state as a whole forward while protecting natural resources but leaving the crux of that in local control,” Titus said.
The other bill, sponsored by Minnix, cuts 1.231% of tax revenues to fund the state’s water plan. In the next fiscal year, that adds up to an expected $54.1 million. Minnix’s bill also creates other transfers to fund water projects.
That bill also received widespread support. State Representative Cyndi Howerton, R-Wichita, said the state has reduced water projects by $84.5 million since 1991.
Several members said the funding bill was a historic step forward in solving Kansas’ water problems.
State Representative Doug Blex, R-Independence, called the legislation “a legacy for all of us.”
“I’m really proud to be a part of the milestone this committee has accomplished here,” said Blex.