KINSLEY — It needs to happen. And it can’t happen quickly enough.

That’s the message shared by local, regional and state officials Friday during a meeting to discuss development of municipal water rights at the R9 Ranch, which is owned by the cities of Hays and Russell.

The sprawling nearly 7,000-acre ranch is located a few miles outside of Kinsley in Edwards County. The City of Hays purchased the ranch in 1995, with Russell buying an 18-percent interest a year later. As two of the largest cities in northwest Kansas — and with counties representing a combined $2 billion regional economy — officials have been working for years to secure a sustainable water supply.

The long-term goal is an $80 million project that will pump groundwater from the ranch and transport to the Smoky Hill River wellfield near Schoenchen, which serves the city of Hays. An additional pipeline would direct water from that location to Russell’s wellfield near Pfeifer.

“Hays and Russell are the water conservation leaders in Kansas. I don’t think that’s any secret,” said Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty. “We’re the water conservation leaders in Kansas because we have to be. We do not have the locally available supply of water.”

There are 34 counties in Kansas with a population of more than 15,000. Ellis County is the only one of those counties that does not have adequate surface or groundwater supplies, prompting an urgent need for a supplemental source.

Hays and Russell officials say securing a long-term supply is necessary to grow the local economy and help increase population. The city has looked at many other possible sources through the years, but has been unable to identify another viable option.

Conservation efforts have gone so far as to replicate what residents might face in true desert areas in the southwest part of the nation, Dougherty said, noting conservation efforts will continue even after receiving water from Edwards County.

“That’s great if you’re in the desert southwest. But when you’re in the middle of Kansas and nobody else is doing that, it sort of positions you as an outlier,” he said. “So we’re very proud of our conservation efforts, but it’s creating a stigma in the communities that there is no water and we think it’s hamstringing economic development.”

The project is in a lengthy legal process to change irrigation rights to municipal use. The transfer application process is expected to be complete this fall or winter, followed by pre-hearing conference and public hearings. If all goes as desired, it could be more than a year until the legal process is complete, though the water rights change applications were submitted in 2015.

City officials have been in discussion with the Kansas Division of Water Resources for approximately 18 months, and Dougherty noted he didn’t initially expect the process to take so long. But this project is unprecedented in the state of Kansas, and it’s important to make sure all of the details are in perfect order, he said.

Several state legislators were present at Friday’s event, including Senators Mary Jo Taylor, R-Stafford, who represents Edwards County, and Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, who represents Hays.

Billinger asked how Edwards County residents have responded to the proposed project. The plan initially drew criticism from residents in Kinsley, but relations seem to have improved as project details have been released, said Kansas Rep. Eber Phelps, D-Hays, who was on the Hays City Commission when the ranch was purchased.

The irrigation rights will be converted from irrigation use — and doing so actually will reduce water use. Only one crop circle remains in production, and that is expected to cease after this harvest. The water quality also has shown improvement as agriculture operations have been phased out.

“There was a perception many years ago that a city like Hays used much more water than say, irrigated land,” Phelps said. “And as people started to understand how much water a community actually used vs. what was being used in irrigation, I think people got a better understanding of it. I’ve talked to a number of people over the years from Kinsley that have been watching this issue pretty close, and I haven’t heard any real negative things as of late.”

The cities of Hays and Russell also have voluntarily agreed to limit actual use to a 10-year rolling average of 4,800 acre feet, which is a sustainable amount allowing aquifer replenishment. This goes “above and beyond” what is required by state law, Dougherty said.

According to engineering studies, converting the ranch to native grass and using the land for municipal use will save an estimated 225,000 acre feet over the next 50 years. The total water use at R9 Ranch would represent 3 percent of total water use in Edwards County.

“We’re talking about a fraction of the water that has been used in Edwards County in a year to make this project come to fruition and the transformation of the region for Hays, Russell, La Crosse and the cities around it,” said Russell Mayor Curt Mader. “I think this is a huge project to move forward with. This would be such a substantial improvement in the water situation of an entire region. I think it’s very important, and I think it does need to move forward.”

Other communities, such as La Crosse, Ellis and Victoria, could have the opportunity to purchase water in the future. Those three communities have penned letters of support, as well as the Ellis County Commission.

The project will be funded from a sales tax that has been effect since the mid-1990s specifically to pursue water resources. Approximately $34 million has been saved to date, and that money will continue accumulating until the project can be constructed. Any remaining costs could be bonded, making the project affordable even without the prospect of outside customers, Dougherty said.

Plans also are in the works for the land to be opened as a natural wildlife habitat and walk-in hunting grounds for Edwards County. The 6,800 acres would represent the second-largest public hunting grounds in the south-central and southwest portions of the state. That, in turn, could contribute to the region’s tourism economy, Hays City Commissioner Henry Schwaller IV said.

“I think that would be much more robust than it sitting here on private ground that no one can access,” he said. “We don’t want to see it as we’re winning and they’re losing. We want it to be a mutual benefit for both. Again, we’re not harming their wellfields. We’re not harming their economy.”