Ellis and Edwards counties are embroiled in a dispute over water rights, but farmers and water users from the whole of western Kansas could be affected by the outcome of a new push to move water from one basin to another.
GREENSBURG – Hays’ long-anticipated bid to transfer water from a city-owned ranch in Edwards County for municipal use hit an unexpected obstacle, as a local organization dedicated to protecting farmers’ water rights presented its case last Thursday afternoon.
In a scheduled meeting of the Kansas Division of Water Resources at the Twilight Theater in Greensburg, KWR Chief Engineer David Barfield, along with representatives from Hays and Russell as stakeholders, presented the draft proposal outlining both the conversion of the R-9 Ranch’s agricultural water rights to municipal use and approval under the state’s Water Transfer Act.
The draft summary was presented as the public phase of the process allowing for statements in support or in opposition, including written statements directed to the KWR by July 12 as part of the public comment phase.
In an hour-long presentation that included supportive statements from representatives from Hays and Russell as well as Brian Meyer, representing the firm providing impact study information utilized in the transfer application, Barfield led the audience of about 100 farmers through the draft proposal, with contingent changes made since its filing on Jan 7, 2016.
The City of Hays acquired the 6,400-acre R-9 Ranch, known locally in Edwards County as Circle K, in February of 1995 after two years of negotiations as a future municipal water source. The $4.2-million contract price included approximately $600,00 for water rights. The City of Russell later acquired an 18-percent share of the original water right to an aggregate total of 7,647 acre-feet. In terms of water rights, one acre-foot equals the right to pump approximately 325,851 gallons of water.
The cities’ original request was reduced to 6,756 acre-feet converted from agricultural to municipal use, with reasonable consumptive use divided between Hays and Russell between 5,670.23 and 1,841.3 acre-feet per year, with a 10 year rolling conservation standard limitation of 48,000 acre-feet, or 4,800 acre feet per year.
The ranch’s 56 irrigation wells would be consolidated to 14 municipal wells.
After a brief intermission, the floor was turned over to the Water Protection Association of Central Kansas, to provide its answer to the draft order. The Water PACK organization is recognized by state water-focused agencies such as the Kansas Water Office as a technologically-driven innovator in irrigation practices, promoting the beneficial and sustainable use of quality water since 1992.
Through a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation, Dr. Andrew Keller, Ph.D. of Keller-Bliesner Engineering, L.L.C. in Logan, Utah, explained as a result of his study of water availability and usage in the area over the past 30 years, the draft proposal as presented would create a future hardship for not only farmers
adjacent to the R-9 ranch in Edwards County, but would impact the entire Mid-Arkansas River Basin over time.
Using a series of graphs and charts, Dr. Keller noted that available groundwater availability in the alluvial Mid-Ark River Basin has been trending downward over the past three decades, despite reduced pumping by irrigators in the area.
The proposal results in a 100-percent transfer of water from the Mid-Ark to the Smoky Hill River Basin serving Hays and Russell, meaning that the transferred water would no longer assist the recharge of the Mid-Ark through evapotranspiration of crops or rainfall. “This would put more stress on wells already experiencing declining recharge,” he noted.
Using data collected from satellite mapping and water usage figures from 1984-85, Dr. Keller indicated that the proposed acre-foot availability as calculated by Burns McDonnell was overstated in the assumption that the entire ranch was in production during the water right perfection period. Satellite imagery showed more than half of the western leg of the ranch was not in production, showing up as white circles on the map, while producing circles were indentified in green.
A more accurate acre-footage figure would be 3,779 acre-feet, he said.
Dr. Keller cautioned that over-pumping at the ranch would eventually cause the unwarranted diversion from neighboring wells, that could effect water well levels as far away as southern Pawnee County over time.
In his conclusion, Dr. Keller noted that the proposal runs counter to the parameters of the Water Transfer Act, both in terms of water diversion and potential over-pumping.
“The project is not sustainable,” he concluded.
Barfield refused comment on WaterPACK’s presentation, stating that it was the first time that he or the cities and their legal representatives had seen Dr. Keller’s findings.
However, the Hays City Commission has been in possession of similar results since 1994, prior to its purchase of the ranch.
According to Hays City Commission minutes from Nov. 22, 1994, the governing body was presented with results from a similar study done at the request of the Hays Water Supply Task Force, which was created to study solutions to the city’s inadequate water supply.
At that meeting, Lavern Squier, task force chairman, told the Commission that the committee had reviewed a study headed by Bob Vincent of Groundwater Associates, Inc. of Wichita, noting that the Circle K (R-9) Ranch does fit into the city’s overall water supply picture as a component, but not as the only alternative.
Vincent’s results, as reported by Squier, indicated that the ranch could support a maximum removal of 5,500 acre-feet with current recharge from the Arkansas River, but “continued recharge from this source appears doubtful” and that the ranch could naturally support the removal of between 3,200 and 3,800 acre-feet of water per year, with the actual amount depending upon whether the average recharge to the region remains close to two inches.
Additionally, Vincent’s Nov. 17, 1994 report addressed the potability (drink-ability) of the water destined for municipal use. The ranch’s water contains excessive nitrates (more than 10 parts per million) and sulfates (over 500 ppm), concentrated in the western and northern portions of the acreage. Vincent noted that the nitrate problem could be corrected within 5-10 years with proper water management, but the sulfate problem is more difficult and would require much more time.
After consulting with an engineer noting that several methods of dilution could be used to reduce the nitrate and sulfate concentrations, the task force supported the purchase of the ranch.
A formal motion recommending that the city purchase the ranch was introduced and approved, 6-1 by the commission.
No discussion of water potability was made at the Greensburg meeting.
However, Richard Wenstrom, a WaterPACK charter member and irrigation farmer in Edwards County since the 1970s, said he felt that the Burns and McDonnell findings were not accurate and called for additional comment from other growers.
“I am concerned about what this decision would hold for the future generations of the farm,” noted Pam Wetzel, Edwards County farmer.
John Janssen, who farms in Edwards and Kiowa Counties, commended the city of Hays on their water conservation practice but noted he agreed with Wenstrom’s assessment that the Hays study is misleading.
“The Kansas DWR and the cities need to earnestly do their due diligence in considering all the information and comments given here,” Pat Jenssen said. “This water is our future.”
Kim Gamble, WaterPACK board member, said that she understands that water is needed everywhere but asked Barfield to work with all involved entities because a precedent was being set and the decision must be sustainable.
Wenstrom added that WaterPACK did not challenge the Water Transfer Act or the city’s rights to transfer the water.
“We feel for the cities of Hays and Russell in their plight, but we question the way it’s coming about,” he said. “Our interest is to make sure that the science is right; we’re talking about water that this area is going to be losing forever.”