Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty expects to see more progress the end of August in the city’s decades-long effort to ease its water shortage by drawing groundwater from its R9 ranch in Edwards County.

That’s when the Kansas Division of Water Resources is expected to make official the city’s application to use the water for municipal purposes instead of its current use for crop irrigation.

The move is one tiny, but critical, baby step in the lengthy process for Hays and the city of Russell to win state approval to use the water from land Hays purchased in 1994 for the water rights.

Called a change-order, the application went for public hearing in June and now is being reviewed by the chief engineer for the division, who could modify the plan. In that case, city officials from Hays and Russell would review any changes and decide if they agree to them, Dougherty said. 

The plan is also awaiting comment right now from Big Bend Groundwater Management District No. 5, which manages water resources in the area of the 7,000-acre ranch and can recommend the plan, or not, based on legal reasons.

“I don’t think we’ve given them any reason to not support it,” Dougherty said of the district. “We’re following all the statutes and regulations and we’ve even gone above and beyond them.”

Dougherty commented on the city’s progress after his presentation on the R9 Thursday at the 2018 Summer Conference of the Kansas Water Congress, which is meeting again today on the campus of Fort Hays State University.

The change order application was filed in June 2015, where it’s been in draft stage.

Once the application is official, it goes before a three-person panel to hold public hearings and decide whether to approve the change. How long that process takes is anybody’s guess since Hays and Russell are the first to apply under the state’s Water Transfer Act.

“We don’t know,” Dougherty said. “It’s never been tested. …but we’ve estimated maybe 14 to 24 months.”

The act is a series of statutes that kick in to regulate the transfer of water when it involves more than 2,000 acre feet over more than 35 miles. The Hays-Russell application covers 4,800-acre feet of water over 67 miles.

“That’s an additional layer of oversight to make sure the transfer is in the best interests of the state,” Dougherty explained. The ranch has been converted back to grass from irrigated cropland, he said, with 2017 being the last year for crop production.

Making up the panel are the director of the Kansas Water Office, the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the chief engineer of the Division of Water Resources in the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

Hays and Russell must demonstrate, among other things, that they will not impair existing water rights, mostly of farmers, who tap the Ogallala Aquifer.

“Not only are we not impairing existing water rights in the area,” Dougherty told the Congress, “the aquifer is actually going to be benefited dramatically by a conversion to municipal usage. Quite frankly, cities use a lot less water than irrigated crops.”

The cities also must demonstrate long-term conservation, which Hays does, Dougherty said. 

The city’s water use per capita over the five-year period from 2011 to 2015 averaged 92 gallons per capita per day, the lowest of any of the state’s cities, with Colby the highest at 283 gallons.

Salina, Lawrence and Emporia, the city’s closest competitors, get much higher rainfall, he said.

“We have a long history of conservation, in fact we’re not only a statewide leader in conservation, we’ve had to look west for our best practices in water conservation,” he said. “We’ve had to adopt tactics that they use in places like Phoenix and Tucson and Las Vegas and the desert areas of California, and some places on the Front Range of Colorado. We’ve had to do that to stay ahead of the curve and to keep our existing resources viable.”

The city has effectively done all it can, Dougherty said.

“We’re the only city in Kansas that does this and we do it 365 days of the year through wet years and dry years,” he said, noting that despite a wet summer last year and this year, nothing has changed with regard to conservation.

“We can’t be the only city in Kansas that’s acting like Tucson, Arizona,” Dougherty said. “You get that stigma of being that city that doesn’t have water. That’s what we’re worried about right now. We could probably ratchet down the screws a little tighter. But we think we’ve reached the effective limits of conservation.”

Finding water resources has been the battle cry in Hays for decades, said State Rep. Eber Phelps, 111th District, which includes Hays. Phelps was a member of the city commission that decided in the 1990s to buy the R9. 

“A lot of eyes are on us, because this has never been done,” said Phelps, who was attending the conference. State authorities, he said, “are being extra cautious, making sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, so this is done correctly.”

The Hays-Russell project, with an estimated $80 million cost, would give the city access to nearly 8,000 acre feet of annual water rights, Dougherty said. Currently Hays and Russell use 3,000 acre feet drawn from groundwater wells drilled into the Smoky Hill River alluvium, the Big Creek alluvium and the Dakota formation.

“Given our slow population growth,” he said, “it wold take a long time to get to our full utilization, if we ever get to full utilization.”