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Candidates largely agree on conserving western Kansas’ Ogallala Aquifer

In a rare show of consensus, the three major contenders for Kansas governor agree on the need to extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer. But will some agreement across party and ideological lines lead to changes in the resource’s trajectory?

The three major candidates vying to become the next governor of Kansas don’t agree on much. But one issue they do see eye to eye on is water and extending the life of the Ogallala Aquifer.

Their answers to a question posed in a debate at the Kansas State Fair in early September suggested that efforts started by former Gov. Sam Brownback to address the challenges facing the aquifer could continue, regardless of who is elected.

“One thing that Senator (Laura) Kelly mentioned and that I agree with is that Governor Brownback did do a good thing in getting us on a starting road down to conserving our water resources,” said Kris Kobach, the Republican nominee and current secretary of state. “And we have made progress down that path. No matter what party you are in, or whether you’re independent, we have to agree that water is a precious resource that Kansas must conserve if our irrigated farming is to continue.”

In a rare moment of consensus on stage, both of Kobach’s Nov. 6 general election opponents, independent Greg Orman and Democrat Kelly, indicated they shared the Republican’s assessment.

“I think this is an issue where we might find violent agreement on the stage today,” Orman said. “I think we all agree that we need to do more to preserve the Ogallala Aquifer. It’s the lifeblood of western Kansas.”

As reported in The Journal’s summer edition, Brownback had made developing a 50-year water plan a key goal of his administration before leaving this year for a post in the Trump administration. In a lengthy story by investigative reporter Karen Dillon, The Journal dug into whether efforts to extend the life of the aquifer are working and why implementing solutions is such an immense challenge. In just the month of August, the piece reached more readers in print, online and on social media than any other story in the magazine’s 10-year history.

In Groundwater Management District No. 4  in northwest Kansas, for instance, a 99-square-mile area in Sheridan and Thomas counties saw users achieve a 35 percent reduction in water use on average from 2013 through 2016. Efforts are underway to include all 3.11 million acres in District No. 4 in a similar Local Enhanced Management Area to extend the life of the aquifer there. Legislation allowing the establishment of such management areas was signed by Brownback in 2012.

But similar efforts to develop limits in southwest Kansas, one of the state’s most water stressed regions, have foundered, in part over concerns that any restrictions would amount to an impairment of the private property rights of irrigators to use water for irrigation. Furthermore, even though it’s been approved by the state, the districtwide management area in northwest Kansas faces a legal challenge in Gove County District Court.

Kobach said he thinks such management areas are the best path forward for the state.

“Those have seen huge success where farmers come together and say, ‘We’re all property owners, but we agree that we have a shared interest in this property and passing it on  to our next generation and to the following generation,’” Kobach said.

If there was a point of disagreement, it was over how far to go in working to extend the life  of the aquifer.

“I do believe that the Brownback 50-year water plan was a good starting point,” Orman said.

“We need to do more to execute it. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many water rights owners throughout the state of Kansas, and they all believe that we need to do this. They all want  to be part of the solution.”

Kelly said she would invest in research universities to support cutting edge work on the water issue.

“I’ll make sure that we’re spending some funding on research to make sure that we have water 50 years, 100 years, 150 years from now,” Kelly said.

That prompted a rejoinder from Kobach, who took issue with Kelly’s approach.

“Once again from the left, we hear, ‘Oh and  don’t forget a little more spending,’” Kobach  said. “We’ve always got to spend. Enough of  the spending, please. It’s the taxpayers’ money.”

Left unanswered at the debate was whether widespread agreement about extending the life of the Ogallala Aquifer would equate to action when a new governor takes office in January.

Candidates weren’t asked where water ranked on their priority lists and whether other matters would command more attention. For most of the debate, other issues – guns, taxes, the overall economy, education – received far more attention, as they have since the campaigns got rolling.

As The Journal’s story about the aquifer details, decision-makers have wrestled with how to manage the aquifer for decades. But getting users to agree on pumping less to make the resource’s finite supply last longer has always been difficult. However, as the debate indicates, there’s increasing acknowledgement of the challenge. Yet despite progress in places during the Brownback years, the aquifer’s overall trajectory toward depletion has not changed much.

Brownback sought to leave behind a legacy in Kansas agriculture, one that would see the dream of sustainable use of the Ogallala Aquifer finally be realized. What happens next might depend in no small part on how much the state’s next governor shares that passion.

A version of this article was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.

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