Kansas House Committee Pushes Bills to Conserve Water in Ogallala Aquifer

Members of a Kansas House of Representatives committee on Thursday passed legislation designed to nudge western Kansas officials to come up with ideas to conserve water in the vanishing Ogallala aquifer.

The bill, along with a bill to allocate sales tax revenue to fund water projects, was passed by the House Water Resources Committee in a vote with little objection. It is now moving to the full Kansas House of Representatives.

Both bills represent a step forward for a committee that two years ago began studying water problems in Kansas and proposing possible solutions to the near-crisis state of the Ogallala River.

“We think we’re off to a very good start on this,” said Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City, chairman of the House Water Committee. “We have a long way to go. But it’s a really good start.”

The Ogallala aquifer, which stretches across several Plains states, is the largest underground freshwater reservoir in the country. After World War II, farmers began pumping water from the aquifer en masse to irrigate crops in dry western Kansas.

Less than a century later, the water ran out. Some parts of the aquifer are about 10 or 20 years old. And a government audit has shown that the efforts of local groundwater management areas to save the aquifer vary widely.

One of the bills, sponsored by Rep. Lindsey Vaughn, D-Overland Park, a senior minority committee member, would require groundwater management areas to report more information to the state about their finances and conservation efforts. They will also have to identify priority areas of their territories and submit groundwater conservation plans to the state.

“We hope that we enable groundwater management areas to identify the most important areas that need to be addressed in relation to maintaining and extending the life of the Ogallala aquifer, and then develop plans for this,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn proposed a compromise amendment during Thursday’s discussion that clarified some of the bill’s points on the proposed groundwater management districts and agricultural groups.

The bill received broad support, but one committee member, Rep. Brett Fairchild, R-St. John said he would vote against the bill due to concerns he heard from GMD that the bill created “paperwork and costs.”

Rep. Kenny Titus, R-Manhattan, said the bill leaves more flexibility for groundwater management districts to develop plans based on local proposals. He said he would support.

“I think this bill strikes a good balance between moving the state as a whole forward on protecting natural resources and putting the substance of that under local control,” Titus said.

Another Minnix-sponsored bill cuts 1.231% of sales tax revenue to fund the state’s water plan. In the next fiscal year, this will amount to a projected $54.1 million. The Minnix bill also provides for other transfers to finance water projects.

This bill also received wide support. Rep. Cindy Howerton, R-Wichita, said the state has cut $84.5 million in water projects since 1991.

Several members said the funding bill was a historic step forward in solving Kansas’ water problems.

Rep. Doug Blacks, R-Independence, called the legislation a “legacy for all of us.”

“I’m really proud to be part of the milestone that this committee has made here,” Blacks said.

This article first appeared on Kansas Reflector, a sister site of the Nebraska Examiner on the State News Network.

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