Kansas legislators are considering a bill that would make it easier to apply to transfer water from one part of the state to another.

Senate Bill 322 would lower the fees – dramatically in some cases – that the Kansas Department of Agriculture charges to review applications for such transfers and perhaps make expensive projects more attractive. The bill would apply only to transfers of water that would otherwise leave the state of Kansas, and therefore not be subject to the department’s usual appropriation fees.

The bill’s main proponent is Mark Rude, the executive director of a groundwater management district in water-starved southwest Kansas.

Rude’s district relies heavily on the underground Ogallala Aquifer, which is one of the water sources he said are “suffering significant depletion.” Without new sources of water for crop irrigators, Rude said, the state as a whole will take a big financial hit.

“Water and the Kansas economy are directly linked,” he said. “Looking to the future of Kansas, there are big problems apparent in a constrained future water supply.”

Gov. Sam Brownback has made water conservation a priority of his administration, tasking the Department of Agriculture and other state officials with developing a 50-year “vision” for the state’s water supply.

The plan has been unveiled in pieces over the last several years. It relies mainly on voluntary conservation agreements and incentives for things like developing less water-intensive crops.

At the state’s annual water conference in November, Brownback told attendees that the foundation of the plan is in place and now is the time to begin sacrificing in order to ensure a water supply for future Kansas generations.

The Department of Agriculture opposes the water transfer bill, which is not part of the 50-year water vision. Lane Letourneau, manager of the department’s water appropriation program, said the vision calls for Kansas to form a compact with other states that would be affected by water transfers before such projects move forward.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee also heard testimony Wednesday on two water bills the Department of Agriculture supports.

Senate Bill 329 would help farmers who switch from flood irrigation to pivot irrigation in the middle of multiyear water use agreements to adjust those agreements without paying another application fee.

Senate Bill 330 would establish a “conservation reserve enhancement program” to encourage voluntary stream bank preservation to prevent erosion that leads to sedimentation of streams and reservoirs.

Neither is expected to have any financial effect, but the water transfer bill could have a significant impact on the Department of Agriculture’s budget, according to a fiscal note prepared by Budget Director Shawn Sullivan.

For a 1 million acre-foot surface water transfer application, the department would receive almost $200,000 less in revenue under the bill than if the project were subject to normal appropriation fees.

David Brenn, president of the Kansas Water Congress, said that aspect of the bill could be problematic in a year in which the state’s budget situation is “beyond concern.”

But with some still considering a plan to build a multibillion-dollar aqueduct to carry water from the Missouri River to western Kansas, every idea should be on the table, he said.

“Kansas needs to look at every practical additional source of water,” Brenn said. “This state does not have a water shortage, it’s just in the wrong places.”