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Kansas water policy proposals advancing

2/2/2012

By JOHN MILBURN

Associated Press

TOPEKA -- Two pieces of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's proposal to revise the state's policies on water use cleared legislative hurdles on Thursday, moving a step closer to giving farmers and cities more flexibility in managing the limited resource.

The House voted Thursday to eliminate a requirement that rights holders use a prescribed allotment of water or lose their rights. The 124-0 vote sent the measure to the Senate.

Later in the day, the Senate voted 39-0 for a bill modifying a program that gives water right holders flexibility in how much of their allotment they use each year. It also provides for a percentage of that amount to be held in conservation.

House Speaker Mike O'Neal didn't anticipate the remaining pieces of Brownback's water proposals having difficulty winning approval.

"What I like about what Sam has done is that we have been talking about many of these for some time. He's come forward and said it's time to do something about it," said O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican.

O'Neal said the "use-it-or-lose-it" policy begun in 1945 doesn't work in modern times. Changing the policy in a time when the Ogallala is being depleted and the state has experienced severe drought conditions in some areas for nearly two years makes sense, he said.

Brownback says his proposals would encourage conservation of groundwater, including the Ogallala Aquifer, to sustain agriculture production and related industries.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Mark Taddiken said more legislators understand the importance of making changes in the water policy than in the past, as well as the emphasis placed on the issue by Brownback. The governor created a task force in 2011 that focuses on the Ogallala Aquifer, which covers vast areas of the High Plains.

"I think people are comfortable with the governor's interest in water," said Taddiken, a Clay Center Republican and farmer. "If these issues get hijacked in the legislative process and are not good policy they know he will step in and take action."

Brownback, a former state agriculture secretary, convened a summit in 2011 in western Kansas to discuss ways to conserve water and preserve the life expectancy of the Ogallala. Other policies yet to be acted upon include giving local water districts more authority in managing the resources to encourage conservation.

House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Larry Powell said legislators had proposed some of the changes to the state's chief water engineer during previous sessions but never could get the administration to agree.

The Garden City Republican said that the coming changes in irrigation practices and technologies, along with the policy changes would help farmers get the most benefit for crop yields in areas that rely on the Ogallala.

"We're mining it. Everybody knows it," Powell said.

Taddiken said farmers already were working on this year's crop, such as putting fertilizer down before the growing season starts. Changes in water policy to give more flexibility will help them manage how much water they use for irrigation and when. Taddiken said the changes in the policy are designed not to reverse the depletion of the aquifer but to stabilize its levels to extend its availability for future generations.

"It's important that we do it soon," he said.