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New Kansas water program has about 750 enrollees

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- About 750 farmers who irrigate have signed up for a new program designed to give them more flexibility over their water use while also encouraging conservation, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

The Kansas Legislature created the multi-year flex plan this year in an effort to protect the Ogallala Aquifer, The Hutchinson News reported Monday (http://bit.ly/VuZuVb ).

A drought that continues across much of the nation prompted the agriculture department to issue about 2,300 emergency term permits for 2011 that allowed irrigators to pump 2012 water allotments to save their crops, said Lane Letourneau, water appropriations program manager for the Kansas Department of Agriculture's Division of Water Resources. Farmers pumped about 100,000 extra acre-feet of water in 2011, he said.

The new program will allow irrigators to use more water during drought years and manage their water rights over five years. That is expected to help the state's aquifers recover during years with more plentiful moisture.

Letourneau said 750 people signed up for the flex account program by the Oct. 1 deadline. About 500 of those converted from the drought emergency permits and were forgiven for 27,000 excess acre-feet of water they used in 2011.

Farmers who have not been forgiven for the remaining 70,000 acre feet that was over-pumped in 2011 must reduce their pumping by that amount over the next year, Letourneau said.

Next year is not expected see much improvement, Letourneau said.

"We're pretty concerned," he said. "There are a lot of folks having to irrigate right now to make their wheat successful, and with the pumping taking place now, the water table could be pretty daunting. But we are hoping that folks use this multiyear flex account tool.

"It kind of changes that mind-set to have to use my last acre inches available this year to saving those acre inches for next year."