MANHATTAN — Gov. Sam Brownback skipped out on the first day of his annual namesake water conference, but there still were plenty of accolades for the progress already made in the 50-year-water vision.
Most of that progress, however, was accomplishments in projects that were well underway prior to the development of the vision three years ago, such as reaching a settlement on the shortage of water promised to Kansas under the terms of the Republican River Compact with Colorado and Nebraska.
Or there was the dredging of John Redmond Reservoir to reclaim water storage space that had been lost to sedimentation.
Few, if any, of the issues identified in the vision — an effort to reduce the decline in the Ogallala Aquifer and the preservation of space in eastern Kansas reservoirs — have been accomplished.
Despite that, a 30-minute video was played Monday for the hundreds of attendees, set in time in 2063, taking a look back at the steps that were taken to conserve water for another generation.
The video was prepared by Broken Arrow, Okla., broadcaster and ministries leader Jeff Brucculeri.
“These pioneers from a half a century ago showed us the way to pay it forward from one generation to another,” he said.
The video was interspersed with state and regional representatives talking about the vision plan.
In a much shorter video address, Brownback welcomed the people attending the fifth annual conference, saying he was unable to be there because he was attending the Republican Governors Association meeting.
Observers said they weren’t surprised, saying Brownback hasn’t been making many public appearances lately. He’s also been mentioned as a potential candidate to serve as agriculture secretary when Donald Trump becomes president.
In a back-and-forth presentation, Kansas Water Office Director Tracy Streeter and Agriculture Secretary Jackie McClasky talked about progress in the vision during the past year.
McClasky said all of the first phase projects and half the Phase 2 projects already had been completed, and said the vision’s blue ribbon task force is working on completing its report detailing how money will be raised to pay for the projects to be undertaken.
KWO assistant director Earl Lewis spoke to that panel’s efforts, explaining the Kansas Water Authority had agreed the annual statewide costs likely would be approximately $55 million.
That does not, however, include any costs associated with implementation of conservation plans in the 14 regions that were spelled out in the vision. How much that will cost is uncertain, but Lewis said he’s working on coming up with an estimate.
As a result, the $55 million would only be for statewide efforts, including approximately $26 million for water conservation. Another $19 million would be for the development of additional sources of water, and $11 million would be for technical assistance and development of new crop varieties designed to save water.
Raising that amount of money will be the issue, and the panel is looking at a broad range of sources, including an increased sales tax, a fee on bottled water, and a surcharge on municipal and irrigation water as well as a fee on residential electricity.
Lewis said the panel is looking at $30 million to $40 million from electrical bills.
The Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas Livestock Association already has objected to any tax on water permits or agricultural water use.
“We strongly oppose the creation of a new fee category associated in any way with irrigation use,” the two trade groups said. “This approach would disproportionally impact groundwater users during a period of rapidly declining farm income levels. Furthermore, we also question the continued fee assessment on stockwater users. A majority of these are groundwater users who pay a fee that yields little, if any, benefit to the livestock industry, while providing funding to projects under the water plan that primarily benefit surface water users in the municipal, industrial and recreational water use sectors.”
Instead, KFB and KLA argued for “implementation of a constitutionally mandated sales tax assessment.”
“Our next step is looking at the task force recommendation and presenting it to the governor,” Lewis said of how to pay for the vision projects.
Likely that final list of potential income will be developed by year’s end.
“I’m sure they’re getting a lot of feedback on that,” Lewis said of the 16 members serving on the panel.
Lewis said he doesn’t know if the proposal will go to the governor in time for the 2017 session, or if the Legislature will even be willing to take it up. Already, the Kansas Legislature is facing yet another massive shortfall in the state’s budget and the specter of a court ruling that could order an increase in education funding.
Although Lewis said he’s just now preparing an estimate on what regional costs might be, he said the costs could be extensive.
“It could be,” he said of regional costs essentially doubling the price tag. “But I don’t see that happening.”
He said it would be difficult enough to get the $55 million identified as necessary for the state program.
“It might add some cost, but I don’t think it would be double,” Lewis said.