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Rev. Brownback's pious Ogallala rhetoric

Published on -9/7/2012, 10:37 AM

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For three plus decades I've been following the mining of the historically, sadly over-appropriated Ogallala. For 18 years I wasted time serving conscientiously on the Solomon Basin Advisory Committee, one of few such BAC's in western Kansas not dominated by irrigation interests. Our recommendations went exactly nowhere. I heard enough pious rhetoric even then. Governor Brownback is offering more now.

I clipped for my pious rhetoric file an Aug. 24 front page story by HDN's Mike Corn, "Gov. pleads to conserve Ogallala." Soooo sweet of him to plead.

Brownback drools right-wingy political ambition. He thinks he deserves to be president. His preachery concern about the Ogallala is a self-serving part of that. Sounds heavenly, but ain't worth a poop, practically speaking. The mining continues and will until somebody grows some 'nads. Don't count on Sam.

A big part of the problem is that Brownback sees water in our semi-arid region as a farm commodity above all else -- ignoring KSA 82a-707b, which ranks agriculture third of six uses. Well, no surprise. Brownback grew up on a farm near Parker, was president of the Kansas FFA, vice president of the national organization, and at K-State a member of the agriculture-oriented fraternity Alpha Gamma Rho. He later served two separate terms as Kansas Secretary of Agriculture, from 1986 to 1990 and from 1991 to 1993.

It is worth noting that the legal water appropriation agency, the Division of Water Resources, is a subdivision of the Department of Agriculture. Technically, the DWR is independent. You are free to believe that if you wish. Now agriculture is a fine thing. Mining the Ogallala to grow water intensive, federally subsidized crops is not a fine thing. Few rational people dispute the logic of that.

But the pious rhetoric continues that dealing effectively with water mining is a personal "moral responsibility" and water users (aka irrigators) are to "voluntarily cut water use by 20 percent through a new program OK'd by the Kansas Legislature." In other words, ya' all be nice. Drown government in a bathtub.

Brownback says that's the way to do it. "I don't have a plan to take it from you" he says of excessive water appropriation rights, "because we don't have the money to buy it."

Brownback is perpetuating the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment "takings" argument, which says "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Oh, sweet Mama: the Constitution!

OK, so does a permit to appropriate water equate to owning private property?

Nope. Brownback joins the ag industry, irrigator, and feedlot community in repeating a useful lie. And few things are more useful than a faithfully repeated lie. However, Kansas Statute 82a-707a says "Such appropriation shall not constitute ownership of such water ..." Nothing in an appropriation right certificate guarantees use of a specific quantity of water forever. Nothing.

So what's stood in the way of reducing appropriated water rights over time? Pretty simple: a lack of environmentally responsible guts. Water governance as it regards the Ogalalla has been given over to short-term agricultural make-a-buck rationalizing, half-a-century of procrastinating ... and an encyclopedia of pious rhetoric.

The problem includes Brownback's old stomping ground at the Department of Agriculture and the pseudo-independent Division of Water Resources. In our area, it includes the Groundwater Mining Districts whose voting members cheer Brownback's right wing "water is your property and we don't have the money to buy it" rhetoric.

Those GMD members speak of themselves equating to "local control" as though they were the only ones who count as locals. To become a voting member requires owning 40 acres or more outside a municipality or irrigating at least one-acre foot annually. Point: most local citizens in the area don't count in "local control."

In addition, irrigation lobby rhetoric classifies those with appropriation permits as "stakeholders" -- as if they were the only ones who have a stake in the long-term sustainability of a vital resource. We all do. With increasing odds for hotter seasons and extended drought, the problem can only become more critical.

The failure to act includes legislators from the area who are too cowardly to confront the issue (and who not incidentally are either themselves involved in irrigation-ag business or get nice political contributions from same). Ultimately it includes average citizens who sit on their butts. Appropriation rights have to be reduced ... by the state -- without payment for any claim of "taking."

To adapt from Kansan Mary Elizabeth Lease (1853-1933): Ogallala irrigators need to raise less corn, voters need to raise more hell, and Preacher Brownback and his flock need to come to Jesus.

Sorry if I've upset anybody, but pious rhetoric hasn't and won't cut it.

Bob Hooper is a fourth-generation western Kansan who writes from his home in Bogue.

celtic@ruraltel.net

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