While less water is expected to fall from the sky in the next couple of years, water in the ground is and will continue to be a hot topic.

Appearing at Friday’s Garden City Farm and Ranch Show at the Finney County Exhibition Building, Jeff Hutton, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Dodge City, said the 2016 forecast for southwest Kansas will be a much drier one than it was in 2015.

Many parts of the state, Hutton said, saw as much as three times the normal precipitation last year.

“I hope you enjoyed that wetness back in 2015 because it won’t be as wet in 2016. And the bad news is, more than likely with the way the pattern is set up, we’ll probably go back to below average precipitation for 2017,” Hutton said.

Historically speaking, he said, Kansas has highly variable precipitation, meaning that rainier years are typically followed directly by very dry ones.

But 2015’s precipitation did help ease the drought, Hutton said.

“All that exceptional drought that we had in 2011, 2012 into 2013 — it’s pretty much all gone,” he said.

Despite the expected decrease in moisture, Hutton said, many of the weather models used by the NWS indicate western Kansas could see more high-impact storms, at least through the spring.

“Once we get into June and July, we’re going to have longer dry periods, and during those longer dry periods, we’re going to see temperatures start to spike up a little bit,” Hutton said.

Less precipitation typically leads to a greater dependence on groundwater, which Mark Rude, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3, said is the subject of at least three proposed pieces of legislation right now.

Rude also appeared at Friday’s Farm and Ranch Show.

Rude said House Bill 2245 seeks administrative remedy before judicial remedy, meaning that the chief engineer of the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources will be involved whenever an impairment case is brought before a court.

Impairment is the lowering of the water table by the pumping of one well that adversely affects another.

Rude said having the chief engineer involved is a good thing because it allows an administrative perspective on groundwater management to be considered during legal proceedings.

“But the report he puts together may have a lot to do on how the court is informed on how to move forward,” Rude said.

House Bill 2511, he said, proposes raising fees to fund the state water plan, which was initiated by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2013.

“It proposes to put a tax on every well in the state of Kansas, $100 every year, and that’s additional fees being sought to fund the state water plan,” Rude said, adding that other fees are being increased for municipal and industrial use. “But never before has Kansas taxed water wells directly like that. So you’ll want to pay attention to HB 2511.”

Chris Beightel, Division of Water Resources program manager, talked about regional efforts resulting from Brownback’s 50-year water vision plan, which promotes conservation strategies for slowing the depletion rate of the Ogallala Aquifer.

Fourteen regional planning areas were creating as part of water vision planning with conservation goals that take into account specific groundwater uses and needs in their area, he said.

Finney County is in the Upper Arkansas regional planning area, which also includes all of Hamilton, Kearny, Gray and Ford counties and portions of Stanton, Grant, Haskell and Hodgeman Counties.

Beightel said one of the Upper Arkansas area’s goals is to extend the usable lifetime of the Ogallala for at least 25 years through the promotion of multiple Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs), Water Conservation Areas, and other incentive-based programs.

LEMAs are public-driven and allow irrigators and other water users in Kansas’ groundwater management districts (GMDs) to establish their own groundwater conservation policies.

Water Conservation Areas are a tool that allows any water right owner or group of owners the opportunity to develop a management plan to reduce withdrawals in an effort to extend the usable life of the Ogallala High Plains Aquifer.

Beightel said another of the Upper Arkansas region’s goals is to slow the depletion of the aquifer by 25 percent within 10 years while maximizing the opportunity to make use of emerging technologies.

“They want to encourage conservation through flexibility, find additional sources of water and places to store that water, and increase the opportunity to use wastewater,” he said.

Beightel said there is still plenty of reason to hope.

“I think you can view it as your aquifer is half full,” Beightel said.

Because groundwater moves very, very slowly, individual efforts to use less of it will mean there’s more of it in the future.

Angie is a reporter with the Garden City Telegram.