Time to protect water in Kansas is running short.
Parts of the aquifer in far western Kansas may only have 10 years of water left. Small towns are struggling to provide clean drinking water, and upgrading their facilities would bankrupt them.
If the state is going to preserve its water resources, it has to act soon, say proponents of an overhaul to the state’s water regulation.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘crisis,’ but our situation in our state is serious,” said Rep. Ron Highland, chairman of the House Water Committee.
For years, the state hasn’t fully funded its water plan. It has failed to secure federal grants to help with water projects because they require a state match. Gov. Laura Kelly has proposed in her budget that the state fund its share for water programs — $8 million — for the first time in more than a decade.
But fully addressing the state’s ever-smaller supply of water will take more like $55 million per year, according to a task force convened under former Gov. Sam Brownback. It will also take, Highland says, a cabinet secretary who’s at the table when budget priorities are set.
Highland has led the House Water Committee through a series of studies, site visits and, now, an effort to completely restructure the way Kansas thinks about its water resources.
“One of the problems we noticed when we were going through all of this is that the water programs have been underfunded for years,” Highland said, “and part of the reason for that is you don’t have a seat at the table when budget discussions occur.”
Environmental groups, municipal water utilities and water experts lauded the committee’s effort to elevate water as a concern in Kansas, allocate money to the issue and clarify a confusing web of governmental departments.
Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the bill the most transformational water policy bill in more than 30 years.
“(If) you champion this across the Legislature this year, (it) will create a legacy for our generation, current generations, but generations to come for Kansas,” Pistora said. “I think we can’t lose sight of that.”
Big changes to Kansas water policy
House Bill 2686 would elevate water concerns to the governor’s cabinet by establishing a new Kansas Department of Water and Environment. Currently, water issues are housed in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the Kansas Water Authority, and other state and federal agencies.
The worst part, Highland said, is that Kansas missed out on an unknown sum in federal grants because it didn’t pay for its portion of the projects.
“We left a lot of federal funds on the table,” Highland said. “We never got those funds because we could not match them.”