More than 20 years ago, in the midst of drought and a long-standing need for long-term water supply, the City of Hays, later joined by the City of Russell, purchased a 7,000-acre Edwards County ranch originally known as the Circle K, now called the R9 Ranch, giving the city the potential for more than 7,000 acre-feet of water.

The city manager at the time, Hannes Zacharias, was one of several city officials involved in the purchase and planning to bring water from the Arkansas River Basin to Hays, a process that involves unprecedented regulatory moves that are just now getting underway.

Zacharias left Hays in 2001 to become assistant county manager in Johnson County and became county manager in 2005. In December, Johnson County commissioners unexpectedly voted not to renew his contract.

The Dodge City native saw the sudden change as a chance to follow a dream. In 1976, at the age of 21, Zacharias made a solo kayak trip on the Arkansas River from his hometown to New Orleans. Today, Zacharias is following the entire length of the river from its Rocky Mountain headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico — traveling by foot, ATV and even horseback where necessary where there is no river flow in western Kansas.

On Sunday, Zacharias reached Edwards County and spent some time on the R9 Ranch. I talked with him Monday by phone about his impressions of the ranch and the journey of Hays and Russell to obtain a long-term source of water.

In Thursday’s Hays Daily News, Zacharias will discuss his Arkansas River trip and what he hopes to accomplish. You can follow his progress on his Facebook page, Hannes’s Ark River Adventure.

Where are you this morning?

I’m actually in Dodge City this morning getting ready to take off and head to Larned. We explored the Kinsley area yesterday and walked parts of the river where we could, or parts of the river bottom, I should say, and explored the areas around the R9 Ranch. Kind of doing the next section (Monday) around Larned and way up around the big circle around Great Bend and down to Wichita.

What was it like being at the ranch? I imagine you were there when you were city manager at some point.

Yes. It looks very much the same. I think given the rain and so forth it’s very green. It’s a sandhill environment, as you know, so it doesn’t have as much vegetation as other parts of the area that are not typically sand hills. It’s very representative of cropland in that area that was broken up with irrigation years ago.

The city has made efforts over the last year or so to remove irrigation pivots. Was that something that was noticeable?

It was. I didn’t see as many on there. I saw some that were kind of on the edges. I didn’t get a chance to go see the entire 7,000 acres. That’s a big spread to tour. But what I could see, it was clear that there’s circles that were taken out of production. 

You were city manager when the city purchased the ranch. Take us back to that time a little bit. What was it like and what was the reason the city was looking for a water source?

Over the last several decades, since the 1940s, Hays has had a water supply issue. Because Hays, as you know, does not benefit from being part of the Ogallala Aquifer, because Hays is too far east and it’s too far west to take advantage of many surface water opportunities of any consequence. So it really was a continuation of the dialog that was going on since the 1940s, 1950s about how to get additional water supply.

The opportunity came up after myriad different studies, which continue today as I understand, about what other options are available. The city commission was anxious to go ahead and get some resolution and move the ball down the field, if you will, to get some water supply in its inventory for growth and sustainability for the community.

The R9/Circle K Ranch became available. At that point in time it was the largest piece of property in western Kansas that was contiguous, that was under one ownership that was for sale. This might be the opportunity to use some of the saved-up reserves from the sales tax that had been in place for decades now to at least acquire a water resource and at least pursue the water transfer. It was an opportunity that we felt at that point in time that we shouldn’t pass up and should take advantage of. 

Back as the ranch was purchased and the planning continued, what was the timeline like? Where did you all think we would be in 2018 in this process?

I think it would have been approved. The hope for the outcome was that we would have gone through the Water Transfer Act and we would have gotten permission from the state to pursue the transfer of water and actually construct the pipeline. So I think the vision at that time is that Hays would have the irrigation wells and would have constructed by this time a pipeline to transfer that water up to Hays. That obviously didn’t happen for legitimate reasons, but that was kind of the hope.

What are your thoughts regarding where we’re at right now?

I think (City Manager) Toby (Dougherty) is doing a masterful job and so’s the city commission and (City Attorney) John Bird and others, other really great, great people there, to steer this effort.

We knew it was going to be controversial. We knew it was going to be the first effort in the state to transfer water from the Arkansas River Basin. We knew all those things were in place, that it was going to be controversial. But we also knew it was necessary to have some sort of inventory in our water rights to go after economic growth and sustainability.

I think there’s some good efforts, as I understand, moving on to invoke the Water Transfer Act and get things into a position where the regulators can say yes to it after the 17, 18, 20 years.

I happened to be covering the city commission where it was announced the change order and transfer order could proceed, and there was a real celebratory feeling that night in the commission room with officials from Russell present as well. They even took a five-minute recess to chat and celebrate after the announcement.

I think appropriately so. That was the issue back 20 years ago, was trying to establish a legitimate, and I should say, cooperative relationship with Russell. I know it’s had its up and downs, as these two communities have wrestled with these growing issues since the 1800s. But to have them both come together, I think it’s a huge success, and I’m proud of the communities for going ahead and pursuing this.

As you mentioned, this is something unprecedented with the change order and water transfer. What kind of effect will that have on the state? Will other communities look at this kind of option?

It’s hard to predict how the state’s going to react to this. I think two things, first of all, the rest of the state does not really have the situation that Hays has. Every other community basically has water assets. Look at southwest Kansas. There’s plenty of water for municipal use in southwest Kansas. Most of it’s being used for irrigation. Northwest Kansas has the Ogallala Aquifer as well. Central Kansas has numerous reservoirs. Russell and Hays are unique in the size of population and the absence of reliable water sources.

Second of all I think, is that others that may want to pursue the Water Transfer Act may recognize that it’s a high bar and they should pursue more easily attainable water rights. This has been a long road for Hays on this particular issue for the last 20 years. I think other communities will keep that in mind in the search for water resources. So I don’t think it’s a huge issue in terms of other entities wanting to do similar activities because the situation is fairly unique that Hays and Russell are in.

Hays and Russell’s water issues have been mentioned as an economic development issue. If this is all approved and the cities can proceed with the pipeline, what do you see could happen economically?

I think it will be a tremendous boost economically because then you take the absence of water out of the equation. Let’s recognize the legitimate concerns that Cessna had in the 1990s about trying to locate there. One of their principal concerns was water supply. I think you take that off the table, that no longer becomes an impediment. I think it allows Hays and Russell to market the community without that millstone, if you will, without that negative attribution to the community. That can be very promising.

I don’t think you’ll see the communities squander that and bring in manufacturing and industry that require a great deal of water. For example, beef and pork processing use a heck of a lot of water. I would doubt they’d be pursing those sorts of things, but certainly manufacturing and other activities that will need to have some water, perhaps, in the production of certain items can be taken into consideration. I’m optimistic that the community will be able to market that without that negative attribution. 

How long do you think might happen before we start seeing some internist in the community?

It’s hard to say. I would suspect a number of years. It’s not going to happen overnight. Other economic factors will come into play in how the community will grow. Certainly the state economy, the regional economy, the worldwide economy will dictate those activities. So that’s always going to be a challenge. But what it does is it basically takes that off the table of being a negative. So again, two different communities of similar size courting the same industry for the same economic prospect, water will no longer be an issue. Other issues might be the case: employment opportunities, certainly housing, quality workforce, those sort of things will all come into play, but it won’t have that negative attribution.

Anything else you’d like to mention about the R9 Ranch or Hays’ water issues?

I think the only thing I could say is my interest is to take a look at the Arkansas River and see how it’s going. I’m pleased that the environs of the Arkansas River are very healthy even though there’s no flow. We walked along it (Sunday) and there’s beautiful cedar trees, cottonwood trees, elm trees, osage orange, they’re harvesting blackberries on the various trees, which is just great. The area along the Arkansas River that goes alongside the R9 Ranch looks very healthy from my viewpoint even though there’s no flow.

It would be nice at some point in the future to have that part of the river be kind of a walking trail, a hiking trail that people can use since it’s right on the edge of the Arkansas River. I think that’s one thing that … people from Hays and the region can benefit by developing horse trails and walking trails in that area, that 4-mile area that it could be kind of a linear park adjacent to the R9 ranch. That would be something that would be fun.