Legislators expressed support Wednesday for a Kansas Department of Agriculture proposal to stiffen penalties for failing to file a water report — as long as the penalties fall heavier on serial offenders than those who make an honest mistake.

Susan Metzger, assistant secretary of agriculture, told the Senate Natural Resources Committee that the annual water reports are key to ensuring the accuracy of the department’s statewide water use computer models and determining whether well users are pumping more than their allotted rights.

But every year about 60 of the state’s 11,000 water well users fail to submit a report and instead pay a $250 fine.

“Those 60 or so individuals every year make a choice: I’d rather pay $250 than disclose what my water use is,” Metzger said. “Which is unfair to the neighboring individuals around them who may be penalized for overpumping or other violations.”

The department’s penalties for other civil violations like overpumping or tampering with a water meter currently top out at $1,000.

The department also has been looking to increase those penalties for more than a year. Metzger said after Wednesday’s hearing that the department will submit a proposal for that change to the Department of Administration in February.

Overpumping penalties can be modified through the rules and regulations process, but the department needs legal authority from the Legislature to change the fines for failure to report water use.

Some of the state’s biggest agriculture lobbying groups turned out to support Metzger’s effort to get that authority through Senate Bill 337.

Under current law the department fines users $250 for failing to report by March 1. But users who subsequently turn in their forms before June 1 are refunded all but $50 of that fine. Metzger said about 94 percent of users in Kansas file by March 1 and by June 1 less than 1 percent of the forms are outstanding most years.

SB 337 would allow the department to levy fines of up to $1,000.

Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Corn Growers Association, Kansas Grain and Feed Association, Kansas Cooperative Council and Kansas Agribusiness Retailers all submitted testimony stating the small percentage of water users who flout the reporting rules should face tougher penalties.

Mark Rude, executive director of a groundwater management district in southwest Kansas, was more skeptical. Rude said higher fines would penalize “good, God-fearing farm families” who have a “hiccup” in their reporting, requiring them to contribute to “a water certification slush fund” for the Department of Agriculture.

Senators on the natural resources committee seemed receptive to the general idea of increasing the reporting penalties but wary about the details. Several had personal stories about the possible challenges of filing a report.

Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Republican from Hiawatha, said he had to wade through muck and mud to get through his field to his water meter for a final reading last month. Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Republican from Sedgwick, said her water reporting form got “torn up” in the mail on the way to her house one year.

Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, a Republican from Grinnell, said he left his completed form on a shelf one year, forgot to mail it in by March 1 and ended up paying $50.

Pyle suggested the bill be amended to gradually increase fines for repeat offenders.

Metzger said about 10 of the 60 who fail to file each year fit that profile, and the department would be willing to incorporate Pyle’s suggestion.

Ostmeyer, whose district stretches across northwest Kansas, said it bothers him when people willfully fail to report their water use. But he worried about the cost of enforcing the new penalties against the state’s most stubborn offenders.

“We got some guys out home that really feel that’s not the state’s business — that it’s nobody’s business what the hell their wells are doing,” Ostmeyer said. “So I guess my concern is, you raise the fine to $1,000 and how much are we going to spend to get that?”

Metzger said Ostmeyer’s concern was valid, but the bill also gives the department the option to suspend water rights for the worst offenders.