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Water for Hays

Of the 34 counties in Kansas with populations of at least 15,000, Ellis County is unique when it comes to water. It is the only county either not sitting on a large underground aquifer or located along or east of U.S. Highway 81 -- which runs through Wichita and Salina -- where surface water is reliably available.

That, in a nutshell, explains why the city of Hays is both fixated on conservation efforts and preoccupied with identifying and securing a long-term water supply. Current sources simply aren't enough for the future, and even the present gets threatened regularly by drought, climate change, decreased aquifer recharge capabilities caused by modern farming practices, and the fact the Smoky Hill River is impaired by Cedar Bluff Reservoir.

Conservation practices have been the relatively easy part of the equation. While tweaking of regulations goes on to this day, residents of Hays are perhaps the best stewards of water in the state. The 95 gallon per-capita use is much lower than the region's average of 172 gallons.

Finding the best option for a long-term water source has proven more vexing. Identified as a priority in the 1950s, there have been at least 76 water studies done by various entities stretching to 1971. Officials have examined the Big Bend area of the Arkansas River, Big Creek Alluvial, Circle K Ranch, Waconda Reservoir, Wilson Reservoir, Cedar Bluff, Dakota Aquifer, Kanopolis Lake, Smoky Hill River Basin, Post Rock Rural Water District, Saline River, Solomon River and the Ogallala Aquifer.

This week, Hays city commissioners will consider staff's recommendation to go with the R9 Ranch in Edwards County. Formerly known as Circle K Ranch, the 6,700-acre R9 Ranch has been owned by the city since 1994. The $3.55 million purchase price included almost 8,000 acre-feet of water rights that can be drawn from the Arkansas River and the Ogallala Aquifer. Currently, Hays uses 2,100 acre-feet of water annually.

Commissioners appear poised to authorize staff to move forward with developing R9's water. As the process will take years, we believe passage Thursday would be wise -- and necessary.

Bringing the water 78 miles north to Hays, mostly alongside U.S. Highway 183, is estimated to cost $65 million. Approximately $27 million already is in hand thanks to a half-cent sales tax voters approved in 1992 for water projects. As City Manager Toby Dougherty expects the project to take 15 years simply getting to the construction phase, that tax alone will generate significantly more by the time it's needed. Other municipalities might be interested in paying a portion, as it could provide long-term solutions for them as well. The city of Russell already owns an 18-percent stake of the ranch, although commissioners there have discussed selling that portion to Hays.

The financial details can wait for another day. Getting started on the project cannot. Securing water for the future should foster economic development in the present.

The R9 Ranch project is the best option available -- and worth pursuing. City commissioners should direct staff to get started immediately.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net