A water battle may be brewing in Lawrence's Kaw River Valley.
On one side, three area rural water districts have combined forces to form a mega-water district that is looking to pump hundreds of millions of gallons of groundwater out of the Kansas River valley between Lawrence and Eudora. Leaders of the new district say they need the water to meet what is expected to be a growing number of rural homes in parts of southern Douglas County, Franklin, Shawnee and Osage counties in the decades to come.
"We're trying to do the right thing and look down the road for the next 40 to 50 years at what the water needs will be," said Larry Wray, chairman of the new Public Wholesale Water Supply District No. 25, and who also is a leader with Douglas County Rural Water District No. 5.
On the other side, several farmers in the valley say the district's plans would rob them of future water supplies needed to support innovative agriculture operations.
"People say this is some of the best ground in the country, really the world," said Greg Shipe, who grows grapes and other fruit at Davenport Orchards in the valley. "It is ideal for growing food close to home like it was decades ago. But you have to have the water to do it."
Douglas County Rural Water Districts No. 5 and No. 2 and Osage County Rural Water District No. 5 have combined forces to form the new wholesale water district.
Wray said the group is still in the exploratory stage, but he confirmed that the new district is interested in pumping large amounts of ground water from the low-lying lands between Lawrence and Eudora.
The state's Division of Water Resources is reviewing an application for the district to pump up to 2,000 acre feet of water per year - or about 650 million gallons. But officials with the water resources office said the permit will be only approved if the new district can show that the excess water capacity is available.
Wray said that is the key point. The district is not looking to do anything to affect the existing water rights that farmers in the area have.
"We're not going to change anything," Wray said. "They already have what they have. The state takes all that very seriously."
Wray said the district is trying to drill three test wells in the area to determine whether there is as much water available as engineers believe.
If the tests prove positive, the district would need to build a water treatment plant somewhere in rural Douglas County. Wray said the district has started looking at some sites, but declined to get into specifics.
That's because the first issue is the test wells. Wray confirmed that the district hasn't yet been able to get property owners to consent to the test drilling on their property. State law, however, does give the water districts the power of eminent domain, which could make it difficult for property owners to resist. Wray said the district is exploring that option, but hopes to avoid it.
"I don't like doing that," Wray said. "Nobody does."
Farmers in the area said they understand their existing water rights aren't at risk. But John Pendleton, a grower who owns Pendleton's Country Market in the valley, said the district's plans could stop farmers from expanding their crop operations.
He said it particularly could be harmful to efforts to establish truck farming operations that would grow fruits and vegetables. That's because those crops more likely will need irrigation to survive the Kansas weather.
Pendleton also said the issue brings up questions about the fairness of state water law.
"To me it is shocking that a group can move into an area, have no connection to the area, and attempt to take the water rights," Pendleton said.
None of the water districts that have formed the new wholesale district operates in the river valley. Lane Letourneau, program manager for the Division of Water Resources, however, said state law allows water districts wide latitude in finding water for their customers.
"This isn't unique to this valley," Letourneau said. "It is happening all over the state."
Lawrence city commissioners may ultimately indirectly impact the deal. Douglas County Rural Water Districts No. 2 and No. 5 receive the bulk of their treated water from the city's Clinton Water Treatment Plant.
The city, however, has placed significant restrictions on the amount of new water meters that the districts can add in any given year. Wray said the meter caps are one reason the new district is pursuing the river valley deal.
"We get a lot of calls for meters right now that we can't accommodate currently," Wray said of the situation in Douglas County No. 5.
He said Douglas County No. 5 was able to sell about 140 meters in 2006, but won't be able to sell any more meters until at least 2010.
That could change, though, if the city renegotiates its treatment contracts with the water districts. City Manager David Corliss said his staff is working on new draft contracts with the districts. He said the new drafts do not continue the restrictive meter caps that currently exist, although city commissioners have not said whether they will approve the new contracts.
Douglas County commissioners have insisted on the removal of those caps after county commissioners passed new subdivision regulations that limit where people can build new rural homes.
Wray said the new contracts may make the Kansas River valley project unnecessary, but he stopped short of guaranteeing that. He said the new district may still go ahead with the project because it would provide the rural areas with an additional source of water for the future.