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Water meeting brings large crowd, few answers

7/9/2014

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

STOCKTON -- The state's water vision team came to Stockton looking for advice on its recently released discussion draft on the future of water in Kansas.

It got more than it wanted, delaying the public comment session to the final 30 minutes of the 90-minute session.

Questions about the availability of water for ethanol plants in water-tight areas and complaints about how agriculture dominates the allocation system prompted Kansas Agriculture Secretary Jackie McClaskey to cancel -- in the interest of time -- the two remaining comment periods.

Instead, she said, comments would be made after the vision team finished its presentation.

The comment session finally came with just 30 minutes left, although McClaskey and Kansas Water Office Director Tracy Streeter said they had a bit of extra time before they had to head to Assaria for the next public meeting of the day.

The 50-year water vision draft officially was released to the public July 1 although a copy of the document went online a day earlier.

"This is meeting No. 7 out of 12," Streeter said of the Stockton gathering.

They apparently weren't expecting much of a response, setting out just 50 chairs in a small meeting room. Soon, state employees were pulling additional chairs from an adjacent room.

Ultimately, slightly more than 50 people turned out, many of them employees of state water agencies and Kansas State University. Representatives of Hays, Russell and WaKeeney were on hand as well.

"What people don't want is another study that can be put on the shelf and gathers dust," McClasky said of introducing the plan.

The plan, she said, included more than 170 action items, although she didn't identify any of them.

Those action items target strategies, McClasky said, but it's not a certainty any of them will be included in the final plan.

She also said the plan seeks to "balance conservation with economic growth."

As water vision team members sought to explain the plan made public, breaks in the presentation brought a flurry of questions and comments, including a caution about setting statewide conservation goals when different situations exist throughout the state.

Bob Hooper complained the water conservation dilemma has been ongoing for more than 60 years.

Gov. Sam Brownback, he said, is the fourth governor to seize on the idea of conserving water.

"It makes good rhetoric," Hooper said.

But he voiced concern agriculture is the predominant user of water and also plays a dominant role in regulating water use.

"We've been going at this wrong for 60 years," he said.

The conversation turned to recharge rates in the Ogallala, as well as the idea of water available to the likes of an ethanol plant to boost the economy.

"It's important to remember that you can have all the industrial development you want," Ellis County Administrator Greg Sund said. "But if no one can live here, it doesn't matter.

One man in the audience wanted to know about assistance for landowners to build dams in western Kansas to capture water when heavy rain does fall.

"If we don't hold the water where it falls, we're just going to waste it," he said of the water flowing downstream.

Before the session ended, Hooper asked why federal farm programs subsidize water intensive crops in areas with steep water declines.

He didn't get an answer.

Despite the plan to delay public comments, pauses were seen as a chance to offer insight.

Hooper, for example, suggested the state use caution when making it easier to transfer water from one area to another.

"I'd rather move people to the water than water to the people," he said.