By the end of May, the process to approve transfer water from a ranch in Edwards County for municipal use in Hays and Russell will be set to begin.

The mood almost was celebratory at Thursday’s Hays City Commission meeting, where the commission heard a report on what the next steps will be in obtaining water from R9 Ranch in Edwards County, which the city purchased in 1994. A special invitation was extended to other area officials. In attendance were the mayor and city council members of Russell — which owns a portion of the ranch — as well as Victoria’s mayor.

Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty said the master order — which transfers the water rights usage from irrigation to public consumption among other changes — should be issued in May. That will start off a series of events, including a public comment period and public hearing where the ranch is located.

If the process goes smoothly, the final order could be issued by August 2019, although Dave Traster, a water-rights attorney with Foulston Siefkin LLP of Wichita, said it will more likely take about twice as long.

It already  has  been a long road, as the transfer application was filed in January of 2015. Since then, there have been meetings with the Kansas Division of Water Resources in which Traster said both sides have made many concessions.

Among those made by the cities is agreeing to using an amount of acre feet that would sustain the aquifer under the ranch for decades.

A study released in February by engineers Burns & McDonnell concluded a 10-year rolling average of 4,800 acre feet per year would sustain the aquifer for decades. The city has rights to almost 8,000 acre feet per year.

That amount is about 225,000 acre feet less than what the ranch used when irrigation rights were in use. The ranch has been in a process of reverting from crops to native grassland and removal of center pivots and their wells since 2007.

“The farmers in Edwards County don’t have to agree to use their water rights sustainably but this is something we will agree to in order to get through this process,” Dougherty said.

Traster noted DWR has made concessions as well, such as allowing greater flexibility on exact locations of the wells and allowing for consideration of population growth in determining water usage.

“Those provisions have been difficult to get, but they’ve been flexible,” Traster said.

Russell Mayor Curt Meder asked Traster if he had a feel for how DWR views the application.

The state division has “pushed back” on some issues, Traster said, but because this transfer is unprecedented, he believes they are supportive of the project.

“If there were some absolute obstacle to the transfer, it could go back to irrigation and that’s not something they want,” he said.

In addition, the city’s pursuit of the ranch’s water fits with the groundwater use vision the state formed under Gov. Sam Brownback, he said.

“One of the things I think they recognize in that vision is that the water isn’t always right where you need it. Hays and Russell are right in this spot. We don’t have surface water, we don’t have groundwater, and so I think they want to solve that problem,” he said.

“The vision talks about transfers and the need to get water in the right place as populations grow in areas where there is water but not enough. These transfers are likely to come along so this is sort of their experiment in a way,” he said.

Vice Mayor Henry Schwaller asked what precedence would it set if the state rejects the transfer application.

“If they don’t approve this, we think it would not stand,” said City Attorney John Bird.