Faced with one nagging enemy of its longtime effort to pipe water from Edwards County, the city of Hays is looking into the nonprofit status of the Water Protection Association of Central Kansas.

Known as WaterPACK for short, the group has been a thorn in the side of Hays and Russell for years. The group has tried to stop the cities from exercising their water rights on a 7,000-acre ranch the two bought in 1995 to ensure a future municipal water supply, according to City Manager Toby Dougherty.

“Throughout this whole process we have only had one active opponent of this project,” said Dougherty, speaking Thursday evening to the Hays City Commission at its regular meeting in City Hall.

“I would like to be able to explain what WaterPACK is, but I can’t,” he said. “They claim nonprofit, but they are somewhat secretive and there’s not a lot of information out there about them. So I can’t tell you what they stand for or what their motives are.”

Most recently, WaterPACK this past summer filed a request in Edwards County for judicial review of Hays’ and Russell’s application with the Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Water Resources. KDA in late March issued a master order saying Hays and Russell could convert their irrigation rights on the R9 Ranch from agriculture to municipal use.

Judicial review, Dougherty told the city commissioners on Thursday, means a judge will review the application and determine whether all the proper procedures, rules and regulations were followed.

The judge had planned on having a hearing back in September, he said, and that would set the schedule of events for the review, but WaterPACK’s attorney intervened.

“As attorneys do, they are doing their best to try to delay the procedure with every legal trick that they can take right now,” Dougherty said. “That hearing hasn’t happened because of some antics by the WaterPACK board.”

The group is a membership organization, he said, and members appear to be irrigators in the Groundwater Management District No. 5 area that includes the R9 Ranch.

“Is there a way to find out whether somebody’s file is a 501c or anything like that?” City Commissioner Eber Phelps asked Dougherty.

“They are registered as a 501c-6, however when we ask for their filing documents to determine why they’re registered as a 501c-6, they don’t have them,” Dougherty replied. “So we’ve requested them from the IRS because we would like to know why they exist, what their reason for non-profit status is.”

“We think that it’s questionable,” said City Attorney John Bird to the commissioners, “and we’re questioning it.”

The irrigation rights of the R9 Ranch include 32 water rights covering 56 points of diversion, which have a total authorized quantity of 7,647 acre-feet per year for irrigation. The total authorized quantity for municipal use is 6,756.8 acre-feet a year. Hays and Russell have voluntarily agreed to take only a sustainable yield, which is 4,800-acre-feet a year.

“So we took a voluntary 30% reduction in our water rights,” Dougherty said.

WaterPACK’s court opposition comes as the state’s KDA in October notified everyone in the Rattlesnake Creek Basin they must reduce their water usage significantly starting Jan. 1, 2020 to accommodate the federally owned Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

Quivira has senior water rights to many upstream users, including some of the same farmers and irrigators pushing Hays and Russell to pump sustainably in Edwards County, he said.

“Many of our neighbors, and many people in the region, advocated that this (Quivira) is absolutely unacceptable, ‘you can’t cut these water rights, you are going to destroy the economy,’” Dougherty explained to the commission.

“Quite frankly, we think it’s a hypocritical stance by some in the region,” he said. “The truth of the matter is, if everybody were willing to act as Hays and Russell were with their water rights, and act sustainably, there would be no problem in the Rattlesnake Creek area.”

Dougherty said WaterPACK is trying every trick in the book to stop the two cities from their legal right to develop the R9 Ranch.

“From our vantage point, it’s not only an illogical stance, but if WaterPACK, or anybody else, were pulling this stunt on an irrigator, or anybody in the ag industry, there would be collective outrage,” Dougherty said. “But because it’s being pulled on Hays and Russell, there’s no outrage.”