Brownback: Kansas must act now to conserve water

The intense drought affecting Kansas could continue for years, forcing expensive water production projects and painful conservation efforts, state officials said Friday.

No one knows for sure how long the drought will last.

With that in mind, Gov. Sam Brownback said the state should push as aggressively as possible to persuade farmers, industry and everyday Kansans to conserve water, and cities to develop and improve water sources.

“We need people to be thinking differently,” Brownback said.

That means publicity campaigns asking farmers to consider planting less water-intensive crops and asking Wichita to share its water conservation, consumer rate structure and aquifer-plumbing strategies with cities across the state, Brownback suggested.

“We need to use this time to plan better for our future,” he said.

The governor’s call to action came after Wichita officials showed Brownback’s Drought Response Team how the drought, if it continues as it has the past two years, will dry out Cheney Reservoir by 2015 and force an increasingly painful series of water restrictions and rate hikes as the city spends hundreds of millions of dollars to get more water.

Wichita City Council members are debating public awareness campaigns to get people to voluntarily conserve water as well as rate increases for heavy residential water users, including those who frequently water their lawns or fill swimming pools.

Meanwhile, city leaders are analyzing expensive plans to drill deeper for water in well fields north of the city, desalinating water contaminated by salt from rivers and old oil fields, and an idea to pipe water from El Dorado Reservoir.

Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, said he still projects the state will give Wichita $500,000 in 2014 and 2015 for its aquifer recharge project, which pulls excess water flows off the Little Arkansas River, treats the water and pipes it to the aquifer for future use.

He said the state will keep working with cities and water districts to plan for potentially dry years ahead by increasing water storage in reservoirs by dredging away sedimentation, recharging aquifers and conserving.

“We have to prepare for it (drought) to be longer than we hope it is,” he said. “We need to go on the offensive and maybe be more aggressive on our strategies now, before it’s too late.”

Brownback said he’s impressed with Wichita’s planning and he asked Wichita officials to conduct workshops with smaller cities to share ideas and expertise in water management.

Secretary of Agriculture Dale Rodman said the state has strengthened rules and penalties for overpumping of water wells.

“We are really in the water wars, and I anticipate more and more problems,” he said. “It’s going to get worse.”

The lack of water could hamper the state, and he wants to make sure cities large and small plan for the future.

“We’re trying to grow this state, and, boy, if we don’t plan for water we’re in serious trouble,” he said.

Rodman said Wichita’s situation shows the value of water, as does fracking for natural gas and oil.

Nearly 20 cities or water districts across the state are concerned about their short-term water supplies, and more than a hundred cities are updating drought plans to get prepared.

Parts of south-central Kansas got as much as 46 inches of snow in the past two weeks, but that melts down to only a few inches of water and it’s not enough to pull the state out of its extreme drought, said state climatologist Mary Knapp.

Kansas is in its third year of drought. Weather patterns suggest drought will continue through spring, and Knapp said it could continue for several more years – although no one can be sure.

State officials say some historic droughts have lasted as long as 11 years.

“The greatest problem we have is we don’t know how long it will be,” said Joe Pajor, deputy director of public works and utilities for the city of Wichita.

Already, some lakes have dried up so much that people can’t back their boats into the water because access ramps that used to be underwater now just lead to dirt. The state is planning to add temporary ramps at Cheney, Kanapolis and some other lakes across the state, said Steve Adams, an environmental scientist with the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

“Every ramp onto the lake is essentially non-usable,” he said of Cheney.

Considering Cheney attracts about 350,000 visitors to its state park each year and consumers spend roughly $100 each on gas and other supplies per day, the lack of access can have a big effect on local economies, Adams said.

“You’re talking quite a bit of money to a regional economy,” he said.

The state also plans to increase its public awareness about wildfires, said state Fire Marshal Doug Jorgensen.

Brownback suggested that state officials talk on agriculture radio shows about planting sorghum that could be sold to some ethanol plants, such as one in Oakley.

“We ought to overwork this thing, not underwork it,” he said, suggesting social media campaigns and webinars in small rural communities. “Even if it doesn’t get a whole lot done now, it will help in the future.”