Hays City Commissioners said Thursday night they will pressure the state to get moving on Hays’ four-year effort to develop a long-term water supply.
The state has dragged its feet on Hays’ request to pipe water from the city-owned R9 ranch in Edwards County, say the city’s commissioners.
“I thought we would now be looking at our engineering and going to final engineering,” said Mayor Henry Schwaller IV on Thursday evening after the commission’s regular meeting at City Hall.
Hays and the city of Russell began in June 2015 to try and win state approval to pipe water from the R9 ranch, which Hays purchased in 1994 for its water rights.
“It’s been four years, and our communities and the region need the R9 ranch to remain economically viable,” Schwaller said.
The application should have taken 18 months, he said.
Despite a good working relationship with the Kansas Department of Water Resources, Schwaller said city officials have gotten no answers for the endless delay.
“We’re ready for them to finish it up, and they just can’t put that pen to paper on that Master Order,” Schwaller said. “We have preliminary engineering. Now, putting together something then that we can bid, that will be a massive project.”
The city’s application seeks to use the water for municipal purposes instead of its current use for crop irrigation. Most recently, the application went for public hearing in June 2018.
Hays and Russell are the first to apply under the state’s Water Transfer Act, which regulates the taking of water from one basin to another.
A series of statutes, the act kicks in when a transfer involves more than 2,000-acre feet over more than 35 miles. The Hays-Russell application covers 4,800-acre feet of water over 67 miles.
Schwaller’s comments came at the end of Thursday night’s meeting. Commissioner James Meier said he agreed 100 percent with Schwaller.
“It’s my personal opinion that we have been treated quite differently from anybody else who would have filed the change order application,” Meier said. “It’s beyond time for the state to step up to the plate, cross the T’s, dot the I’s, and finish this.”
He said it’s time to look elsewhere for a resolution.
“We’ll be making phone calls to the Governor’s Office, the Agricultural Secretary and our state Representatives and state Senators,” Meier said.
City Commissioner Ron Mellick also agreed the commission must apply pressure.
“It’s very frustrating, the fact that we’re getting promises that aren’t met,” Mellick said. “If we didn’t have those promises we wouldn’t be nearly as frustrated as what we are. As a commission we’re going to start pushing a little harder, so if something comes about that we’re not playing nice, well it’s not about playing nice, it’s making elected officials do what they’re supposed to do, and appointed officials.”
As a commissioner for two years now, Commissioner Sandy Jacobs said the water issue is a frustration.
“There’s no reason for it to continue. We’ve done everything we’re supposed to do,” Jacobs said. “It’s time we get it done.”
It’s time for a decision, said commissioner Shaun Musil.
“This is not only for Hays, but it’s for our neighbors and western Kansas,” Musil said. “We need for western Kansas to grow, and if we don’t get this soon, it’s going to hurt for a long time.”
Hays plans to take less water than is available on the property, then monitor the usage very aggressively both annually and over 10 years.
Hays in August was led to believe that the final master order would be issued by the Division of Water Resources in two weeks, said Meier. But that two weeks has somehow stretched into six months, he said.
Once that order is issued, hearing officers will be appointed and certain officials are convened into a committee.
“Then we’d have a discussion about whether allowing that water to be transferred to Hays is more beneficial to the state than not transferring the water,” Meier said.
The timeline changed about a month ago when the chief engineer for the Division of Water Resources wanted to insert a caveat in the change application that said in the future if there was ever any evidence that the quantity of water in the area was decreasing that that would cause an automatic evaluation of the amount of water Hays is allowed to pull out, Meier said.
“Keep in mind that under current law we should be allowed to pull out about 6,700 acre feet,” he said. “In the past four years we’ve already gone through the process with DWR of reducing that from 6,700 acre feet to 4,800 acre feet, which is what we think is sustainable long term in the field. So for them to come back now and say we want this automatic reevaluation of how much you can pull out is kind of a last-minute play.”
The city has supplied everything the state has asked for, and even gone above and beyond, Schwaller said.
“It’s in our interest to bring the water to Hays and Russell, and possibly Ellis and Victoria and LaCrosse, as soon as possible,” he said. “This will be the largest project in our city’s history. We’re very concerned by the delay in issuing that master order.”
The Hays-Russell project, with an estimated $80 million cost, would give the city access to nearly 8,000-acre-feet of annual water rights.
Currently Hays and Russell use 3,000 acre feet drawn from groundwater wells drilled into the Smoky Hill River alluvium, the Big Creek alluvium and the Dakota formation.
“We’re getting a little nervous,” Schwaller said of the process. “We’re not hearing what we need to hear, that is, what’s going to happen next. We have no information, that’s a bad sign.”