Local officials are calling it a “huge step forward” in efforts to develop the R9 Ranch in Edwards County into a long-term municipal water source to address supply concerns in Hays and Russell.

After a nearly three-year wait, the Kansas Division of Water Resources has released a draft master order approving a change-order application that would convert water use on the city-owned property from agricultural to municipal.

The approval is not yet final. A draft has been made available for public review, and likely will initiate public hearings in Edwards County, said Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty.

“We are extremely pleased that the order’s been drafted and sent out for public review and comment,” Dougherty said. “This is a significant milestone in the R9 project. It’s taken us about three years to get here. We’ve had a lot of small milestones along the way, but this was the first really significant milestone in the process.”

Officials have indicated they hope to have the order finalized by August.

The cities of Hays and Russell still could face another lengthy wait, as approval of the change-order will trigger a second phase of the project — obtaining permission to transfer water from a rural area near Kinsley to Hays and Russell municipal customers.

The water transfer act application has been filed, but is contingent on approval of the change order. Approval could take another 18 to 30 months, Hays Mayor James Meier said, noting he is hopeful the process will move as quickly as possible since the change order process has been so extensive.

“Of course, we still have a long ways to go. But this is very good,” Meier said. “This is real progress and not just being told, ‘Well, they’re working on it’ for the last three years. This is something actual, substantial now that we can go out and have those conversations that we’ve been wanting to have this entire time in places like Kinsley to talk about what exactly our plans are.”

Meier said he believes the R9 water project could prove beneficial not only to Hays and Russell, but to the entire region. Officials also have discussed plans that could benefit Edwards County, such as possibly converting much of the nearly 7,000-acre property into native wildlife habitat and walk-in hunting ground.

Several studies have been done to determine a sustainable amount of water that could be transferred without adversely affecting the aquifer and local supply.

The cities of Hays and Russell voluntarily have agreed to limit actual use to a 10-year rolling average of 4,800 acre-feet, which is a sustainable amount allowing aquifer replenishment. According to engineering studies, converting the land to native grass and using the land for municipal use will save an estimated 225,000 acre feet of water over the next 50 years. Crop irrigation already has been phased out on the property. The total municipal water use at R9 Ranch would represent 3 percent of the total water use in Edwards County.

The City of Hays purchased the ranch and its water rights in 1995 with the intent of using the groundwater to supplement the city’s local supply.

The project would be one of the largest water projects ever completed in Kansas history, and the cities’ water transfer application is the first one filed with the state since at least the early 1990s, Dougherty said.

“That in itself … is a pretty lengthy process,” he said of the transfer application. “But we can’t start that until this part is finished. It puts us one step closer to getting the R9 Ranch developed as a water source.”