TOPEKA — State government officials with regulatory authority of underground water resources in Kansas haven’t registered an individual or group willing to enter a voluntary conservation program established in April, officials said Tuesday.
The promise of legislation signed five months ago by Gov. Sam Brownback was that a network of Water Conservation Areas could be formed to restrain consumption, maintain agricultural production and help extend life of the Ogallala Aquifer.
WCAs are distinct from existing water conservation mechanisms because the new option affords holders of water rights flexibility to negotiate the reduction target with the Kansas Department of Agriculture. For example, discussions with potential WCA organizers generally make a 20-percent cut to the preferred target, but individual approaches could differ.
Brownback hailed formation of the program as a central element of the administration’s commitment to more efficient industrial use of water.
“Agriculture is the largest industry in Kansas,” said Jackie McClaskey, secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture. “In order for agriculture to continue being the economic driver in our state, we have to better conserve water resources.
“It’s important for water users to understand how WCAs can be a part of their water management plans and how this tool is different from other water conservation tools.”
McClaskey said convincing water right holders to engage in WCAs, in conjunction with the more rigid Intensive Groundwater Use Control Areas and Local Enhanced Management Areas, would be necessary to advance Brownback’s 50-year plan for managing the resource.
Incentive to commit more deeply to water conservation — especially in the western portion of Kansas — was illustrated by prolonged drought and growing evidence of aquifer depletion. A pivotal question in policy discussions about water resources is whether Kansas’ government can find enough traction with voluntary programs or must turn to mandatory cuts.
Under the WCA model promoted by the agriculture department, participants would be able to create multi-year appropriations of water for irrigation, transfer allocations among enrolled water rights and shift consumption to alternative purposes.
Settling on where to draw the conservation line in each WCA is a challenging part of negotiations, which the agriculture department expects to result in formation of WCAs by the end of 2015.
“We’re really counting on neighbors to influence neighbors,” McClaskey said. “We feel voluntary has potential. Flexibility means a lot to people.”
Water right owners or a group of owners with land qualifying for conservation can form a WCA. The area must have declining groundwater levels, evidence of preventable water waste or experience unreasonable deterioration of water quality.
In 2012, Brownback signed a package of legislation aimed at extending the useful life of the Ogallala Aquifer. That law enabled groundwater management districts to create conservation areas within their borders and repealed the state’s “use-it-or-lose-it” policy in terms of maintaining water rights.