A Battle Over Water Rights Pits Urban vs Rural in Kansas

May 3, 2019  | 6 min  | Ep4437

Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. The quote attributed to Mark Twain often gets cited when we talk about farming and ranching in the West.

Midwesterners would agree it applies to them when their livelihood is on the line.

John Torpy reports our Cover Story. Producer contact torpy@iptv.org

Over the past several years, the city of Wichita has been preparing for the next drought. Part of that planning involves securing sufficient groundwater for the community of 400,000. But a recent proposal has residents in the surrounding eastern Kansas counties crying foul. They are worried the city’s plan only takes care of Wichita and leaves the regions farmers and the environment high and dry.

The rules governing water rights in Kansas are complex. In the summer of 2005, the City of Wichita started a program along the Little Arkansas River to collect, treat, and inject surface water into the Equus Beds Aquifer for future drought mitigation. City officials want to redesignate the water so it can be used for Aquifer Storage and Recovery credits or ASR’s.

Joe Pajor, Deputy Director of Public Works, City of Wichita:”What makes ASR different is we're bringing new water to the discussion. We're taking this excess surface water, cleaning it, injecting it into the aquifer, and that's the water that we can recover from our ASR credits, not the native groundwater, not the native groundwater rights that we and others have in the area.”  

Low levels in the city’s wellfields during a drought in 2011 created concern about aquifer recharge credits. In 2018, the city of Wichita had the opposite problem. Water levels in the wellfield were so high the city was limited on how much water could be put back into the aquifer. Currently, ASRs can only be acquired when there is room in the aquifer.  It was these two events that prompted the City of Wichita to suggest the creation of a new designation for water credits.

Joe Pajor, Deputy Director of Public Works, City of Wichita:” And what we have proposed is aquifer maintenance credits. We would take the surface water, treat it, take it to town, treat it again, use it to meet customer demand in these, in between years and years between droughts and during that time, each gallon of surface water that we take through our plant and into town leaves a gallon of groundwater in the ground to keep those full aquifer conditions. That's what we're trying to get to.” 

Wichita officials believe the change will increase the amount of water available to the city in times of drought, and the ability to collect credits even when they are blocked from injecting water back into the aquifer.

Joe Pajor, Deputy Director of Public Works, City of Wichita:”So the 1% drought, the 1930s level drought, and as a result of that, now we need to collect credits over the long term for use. Very infrequently. That's a big change. The second big change is that we need to figure out a way with a full aquifer to still be able to produce credits because we've got to produce credits every year in between droughts so that we have credits available to use during the drought. So we need to have a way to be able to do that.”

But Kansans living outside of Wichita are opposed to the idea, saying the city is trying to use water farmers and ranchers rely on. Each operator is allotted a specific amount of acre feet to use on their crops or water their cattle. Bill Carp is an area farmer concerned with the recent proposal.

Bill Carp, farmer, water rights holder:” The whole purpose for these changes to the, to the agreement is because they can't get water rights added up. So since they can't get them to add up, they've come up with an idea that will send the water to Wichita. And since we're sending it to Wichita, it'll be just the same as putting it in the ground. We just won't have to go through that extra step. Well, you and I both know that if you've got a cup over here and you don't put water in it, you're not storing it for later.”

Carp is also a member of the not-for profit group Citizens for the Conservation of the Equus Beds which is opposed to the rule change for environmental reasons. Other groups offering resistance to the city’s new plan include the Harvey County Commission and the Kansas Farm Bureau.

Groundwater Management District Number 2, a division of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, is charged with overseeing water usage for agricultural purposes around the area of the Equus Beds Aquifer. The Halstead, Kansas based group and its board of directors also opposes Wichita’s request to change the rules saying the move could harm the aquifer.

The Kansas Department of Agriculture, which will make the final decision, has held public gatherings for groups to voice concerns on the plan. Last December, members of Citizens for the Conservation of the Equus Beds, along with other rural water users, packed a meeting room in Wichita to lend their thoughts to the city’s proposal.

State officials hope, with more open dialogue, a better understanding of what the city is asking for can be reached.

Chris Beightel, Program Manager, Kansas Dept. of Agriculture: ”It's their duty and their job to, to plan for these droughts to make sure their citizens have water in times of need. Um, so you're, you're playing that against, you know, the irrigators and the homeowners out in the area who have wells that they rely on and they're concerned about water levels dropping or, or a water quality deteriorating. And, you know, it's, uh, those are all valid concerns. And the way to make it right, I guess, is to make sure that all the terms, conditions protect everyone while fulfilling everyone's need to the extent possible. So that's what we're pursuing here.”

The Kansas Department of Agriculture is conducting a study to determine the effect of the City of Wichita’s plan. A final decision on the proposed changes is expected by fall of 2019.

For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy

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