A panel of state water officials on Wednesday voted not to interrupt irrigation activities in northwest Kansas, derailing a regional advisory group's attempt to salvage the area's underground water supply.
"We're no better off than we were before. Nothing's changed," said Bob Hooper, chairman of the Solomon River Basin Advisory Committee.
Hooper, an outspoken critic of irrigation, said he may file a lawsuit to force a public discussion of irrigation's toll on the Ogallala Aquifer in much of western Kansas.
"Water is a public trust in Kansas; it's not owned by anyone," Hooper said. "And yet we've got a system in place that lets the big users decide how it's used. Now, where's the 'trust' in that?"
Kansas Geological Survey studies have shown that much of the Ogallala Aquifer is already 50 to 75 percent depleted. Parts of several counties are thought to be within 25 years of depletion.
Earlier this year, the Solomon River Basin Advisory Committee said it wanted the 6,835-square-mile basin to reach "sustainable use" -- a general term for matching an area's water use with its rate of natural recharge -- by 2015.
When the Kansas Water Office released its initial draft of the state's 2001 Water Plan, Hooper noticed the committee's recommendation had been rewritten, allowing irrigators to deplete the aquifer by 3 feet in five years, though the aquifer's annual recharge is less than one-half inch.
In June, the basin advisory committee refused to endorse the proposed water plan.
On Wednesday, the Water Authority's planning committee voted to proceed without the advisory committee's endorsement.
"The system is screwed up, representationally," Hooper said, noting that many water authority members have direct or indirect ties to irrigation.
Kent Lamb, water authority chairman, disagreed with Hooper's assessment.
"When the full authority votes on the planning committee's recommendation (today), I think the position of the majority is going to be that we need to be looking at this real seriously," Lamb said.
"I think the consensus is that there's been a slowdown (in aquifer withdrawals) -- and that's good -- but we've not done enough to address the inevitable (depletion). That's the point Bob was trying to get across and I think most of us would agree with that."
Lamb said the water authority in willing to support moves toward sustainable use, but not within the time frame proposed by the Solomon group.