Hays is holding the state’s feet to the fire on a promise to approve by March 1 the city’s request to pipe water from Edwards County.

The state’s Division of Water Resources agreed last Friday to deliver a needed Master Order after years of delay on the water project, said Hays Mayor Henry Schwaller IV, speaking at a news conference Tuesday morning at the Hays Welcome Center, 2700 Vine.

“We’re looking forward to receiving the Master Order by next Friday (March 1),” Schwaller said. “And if not, we’ll turn up the heat.”

The city has worked 20 years on the project to pipe water from the 7,000-acre R9 ranch in Edwards County. Hays bought the ranch in 1994 as a future source of city water. Hays filed its application four years ago, working through the state’s lengthy process.

“It’s important to the counties of Russell, Rush and Ellis, that we have this water,” Schwaller said. “We are a $2 billion economy and an important part of northwest Kansas. If we do not have this water we cannot continue to move forward, we’ve waited long enough and we’re ready to move.”

Hays officials last week said they’re frustrated by the state’s slow pace on the project. Because of that, Schwaller said, he and Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty and Russell City Manager Jon Quinday were in Topeka on Monday and met with Gov. Laura Kelly and Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers, as well as Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, to talk about getting some action.

“Senator Billinger had great advice,” Schwaller said. “He says if we don’t have a Master Order by next Friday, he will personally go over and meet with the chief engineer of the Division of Water Resources. So let’s give him the two weeks and see if he sticks to his word.”

Meanwhile, Hays City Commissioners also are reaching out to the division’s chief engineer and to other elected officials, as well as deploying lobbyist Sean Miller to meet with the Secretary of Agriculture, who oversees the water division.

Without going into detail, Schwaller said the city will act If the state doesn’t come through by March 1.

“There are other steps we can take, but they would be very harsh. We don’t want to go down that path, I’m not even going to use the words, because If I say them, it will open a can of worms,” he said. “There are other additional steps we can take and it will affect everyone in that basin.”

Once a Master Order is released, Hays can start working through the state’s required Water Transfer Act, which regulates the taking of water from one basin to another.

The city’s application seeks to use the water for municipal purposes instead of its current use for crop irrigation. Hays and Russell are the first to ever apply under the Act.

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.

Under current law, Hays could pump about 6,700 acre feet, but instead the city agreed to reduce that to 4,800 acre feet.

“We’re taking a property that has nearly 8,000 acre feet of water,” Schwaller said. “That’s 8,000 football fields a foot deep, it’s a lot of water, and we’ve said we’ll take less than 4,800 acre feet.”

The restriction is a rolling one over a 10-year period, so if Hays takes more in a year when there’s drought then it would take less in other years.

Schwaller said Hays has studied the ranch and the water availability intensively with modeling, and looked at the entire life of the acquifer to make sure the project is done correctly. It won’t give another inch, he said.

“We’ve already conceded everything we need to concede,” he said. “Anything else is out of the question, because if we have to concede then all the other water holders in the area will have to concede as well, and that’s not going to happen.”

Preliminary engineering can proceed after the Master Order is issued. In developing the water, Hays plans to reconfigure the well field and reduce the number of wells. By not pumping its full water right allowed for irrigation, Schwaller said, Hays has already provided a benefit to neighboring farmers and ranchers.

While in Topeka Monday, the official trio also met with Brad Loveless, the new Secretary of Kansas Wildlife, Parks & Tourism, who was formerly with electric utility provider Westar Energy, and an avid hunter, outdoorsman and fisherman, Schwaller said. They told him the city has planted native grass at the 7,000-acre ranch and plans to turn it into a walk-in hunting area.

Under the Kansas Water Transfer Act, a three-person panel has an 18-month window in which to decide if the transfer is of more benefit than harm.

“We’re going to demonstrate that certainly given the sustainable yield and given the sustainable use of that water in that region, and what we intend on doing here with that water, that the benefits actually do outweigh any costs,” Schwaller said.

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.