Hays city commissioners got their first look Tuesday at an ordinance identifying the city-owned R9 Ranch in Edwards County as the most viable solution to an issue that has plagued water-short Hays for more than 50 years.

Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty expects the commissioners to ultimately vote for and approve the ordinance at next week's meeting, which would send "a clear message" Hays stands ready to move forward with developing water supplies on the 7,000-acre ranch it owns.

It's a project that could cost $65 million to complete, delivering water 78 miles north to the city of Hays.

While there are other possible sources of water in the area, Dougherty said the ranch south of Kinsley stands head and shoulders above them because the ranch and its vast water supplies already is owned by the city.

The ordinance wasn't voted on Tuesday because it was a work session. It will, however, go before the city for action next week.

Purchased in 1994 by the city of Hays, the R9 ranch has been known by many names, including Circle K, the name it was best known for at the time it was purchased for $3.55 million.

The city of Hays adopted the R9 moniker for the ranch and has used the name exclusively in recent years.

Nestled along a portion of the Arkansas River, augmented by water from the Ogallala Aquifer, the ranch came with nearly 8,000 acre-feet of water rights.

By comparison, Hays uses nearly 2,100 acre-feet of water annually, water it obtains primarily from the Smoky Hill River near Schoenchen and Big Creek in and around the city of Hays. Water also is withdrawn from several wells reaching into the Dakota aquifer. An acre-foot of water contains approximately 326,000 gallons.

Dougherty said the city's already been in discussions with the Division of Water Resources, the state agency that regulates water resources.

With the signing of the ordinance -- if commissioners decide that's what they want to do -- a series of actions will be set in motion.

Hays will have to file an application for a change in use and change in point of diversion.

Proposing to move the water north to Hays also will trigger the state's Water Transfer Act, a never-before-used legal provision that kicks in anytime 2,000 acre-feet of water or more will be moved outside a 35-mile radius of its source.

It's a full-blown legal process that requires a public hearing and a host of studies to justify the transfer. The hearing panel includes the state's chief engineer, the director of the Kansas Water Office and the Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The change in use likely will drop the amount of water available down to approximately 5,300 acre-feet of water.

It's not known how long it might take for the project to get state approval and move to construction.

But, Dougherty said, it might take as long as 10 years to get final regulatory approval, and another five years to design the project and obtain financing and right-of-way acquisition.

That's why he thinks a 20-year plan isn't enough.

"You need to start looking farther out," he said. "We can't spend $65 million on a 15-year option. We need to be looking further out."

As envisioned, the project would use state-owned rights-of-way along U.S. Highway 183 for much of the distance, except for a portion of the distance linking the ranch to the highway.