It might be another four years before Hays draws water from its R9 Ranch 67 miles away in Edwards County.
But when it does, the city has promised the state of Kansas it will draw much less from the sandy soil than when the ranch was used for agricultural irrigation, according to Hays City Manger Toby Dougherty.
“We told them we had no desire to use this source in an unsustainable manner, and so we’ve actually agreed with a 30 percent reduction in our available water rights in order to get this done,” said Dougherty on Monday evening during a presentation on the project to the Ellis County Commission.
“We’re doing something that nobody else down there in the area is doing,” Dougherty said. “No other water right holders are lining up to take a voluntary 30-percent reduction of their water rights.”
Hays will limit pumping to no more than 4,800 acre feet of water a year from the ranch, which once it’s up and running will be one of several sources of water for Hays, Russell and the region, indicated Hays Mayor Henry Schwaller IV, who also addressed the county commissioners. The presentation was made during the regular Monday meeting at the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main.
“We certainly don’t need the entire water right,” Schwaller said, “but we’ve been working with other communities in the area, Victoria, Ellis and La Crosse, and we hope to have them as customers. We see this as a regional solution. We’re over $2 billion economy and we think this is a really appropriate solution for Ellis, Rush and Russell counties.”
Dougherty told the commissioners that converting the ranch to a municipal water source will benefit the aquifer by 225,000 acre feet of water over the course of 50 years.
The R9 more than doubles the water capacity that Hays and Russell have currently. Right now the two cities combined use about 3,000 acre feet annually, with Hays using 2,000 and Russell, 1,000.
Hays draws from its Smoky Hill and Big Creek well fields, while Russell has the Pfeifer Smoky Well Field, and the intake on Big Creek. Hays also has 2,000 acre feet of water rights at Cedar Bluff Reservoir that is available if needed, while Russell has 5,000 acre feet.
But the reservoir west of Hays is not reliable, he said.
The R9 represents a 75-year-plus option for the region, at the current growth rate, or even accelerated, Dougherty said, making it a long-term sustainable water source.
The R9 water rights are not new, but date to the 1970s and 1980s. Hays and Russell bought the ranch and the rights in 1995 and 1996.
“We’re not taking anybody else’s water rights, there’s no impairment of existing water rights, the aquifer is not being depleted,” Dougherty said. “And quite frankly we’re not being treated like everybody else. We are being held to a higher standard, but we’re okay with that.This has got to be a sustainable water source for the region if it’s going to benefit us, and if it’s going to be worth a $90 million investment.”
County Commissioner Butch Schlyer asked Dougherty if there’s opposition from the counties to the south to the cities taking the water.
Dougherty said there’s some localized opposition, mostly from neighbors.
“They don’t like the water leaving the basin,” he said. “The water leaves the basin every day in corn and milo and cattle and everything else. It’s just a different way of leaving.”
Dougherty said the R9 had 57 water rights and 60-some points of diversion into 44 crop circles. That has all been decommissioned, and the existing irrigation wells capped and plugged. Two were left operational to monitor groundwater levels.
The ranch is completely fallow, with the infrastructure removed and planted back to native grass, he said, as the ranch is transitioned to a cattle operation.
The city is working with the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism on walk-in hunting. It will be the largest tract of walk-in hunting in about a hundred-mile radius, Dougherty said.
The city will drill 12 new wells, phasing them in with seven first, and five later if there is growth in the region.
“The initial plan is to use 1,000 acre feet from the ranch,” Dougherty said. “You have to keep the line charged and keep all the wells working.”
The project will require 67 miles of pipeline, mostly through public right of way, but also some staging and construction easements that will be necessary.
The years-long process with the state of Kansas for developing the water from the R9 for municipal use most recently has the city waiting for a long-awaited Master Order from the Kansas Division of Water Resources to take effect in the next week or so.
The next phase is the Water Transfer Act, a series of statutes that kick-in when water in excess of 2000 acre feet is being transported more than 35 miles.
A three-person panel of state officials will convene hearings, gather information and rule on the transfer request based on 28 criteria.
The question is whether the transfer is good for the state of Kansas: Does the benefit of allowing the transfer outweigh the benefit of not allowing the transfer, he said.
Dougherty said the cities must prove they’ve looked at alternative sources, invested long-term in ongoing conservation measures, that they’re not impairing or depleting local supplies, that there’s a feasible plan in place to move the water, and that they are complying with all state regulations or groundwater management district regulations.
That process can take 12 to 24 months.
“So once you get that totally approved, line construction another year?” asked County Commissioner Dean Haselhorst.
“We’ve talked about this with the (city) commissioners,” Dougherty said. “Once we get to the Transfer Act, they’re going to have a design contract in front of them to take action on, get the design going, and start the land acquisition process, and then you’re probably looking at an 18-month, two-year construction time, including design.”
“So maybe by 2022?” asked Haselhorst.
“We hope so,” said Dougherty.