A year that saw little rain has led to sharp declines in Kansas groundwater. And now the Legislature is considering several measures that could slow those declines.
The Kansas Geological Survey conducts an annual measurement of groundwater levels in more than 1,400 wells in 47 western and central Kansas counties. The most recent measurements, taken last month, showed an average decline of 2.25 feet during 2011. The previous year, the average went down 1.18 feet.
“Overall, looking at the raw numbers, we had one of the toughest years of decline in the water levels since we’ve been doing the program” in the 1940s, said Brownie Wilson, KGS water-data manager.
Since 1996, the average levels have fallen more than 12 feet.
Still, Wilson said, it’s important to note that doesn’t mean problems exist all over the state. Water levels can vary greatly from region to region. Some counties have enough water to last for 100 years. Others are already dry.
The geological survey maintains an online map detailing the situation statewide at www.kgs.ku.edu/HighPlains/maps.
Susan Stover, manager for the High Plains Unit of the Kansas Water Office, said drought conditions made it so that water consumers took more than the usual amounts of water from the ground for irrigation and municipal uses.
“They’re lower (water levels) than typical, but I can’t say that it’s lower than expected,” Stover said.
Kansas water officials are promoting measures that would protect the levels of water in the Ogallala and High Plains aquifers. Here’s a look at a few of them, at various stages in the legislative process, though all have passed their house of origin, water officials said.
• Drop “Use it or Lose It.” This bill would eliminate a provision in the law that mandates that water-right owners use a certain amount of water or give up the water right.
Stover said there is concern water-right owners are running their wells just to keep their claim to a water right. While it’s difficult to quantify exactly how much this is done, Stover said she hears a lot of anecdotal evidence that it’s happening.
“Everybody seems to know somebody that’s done it” among water right owners she’s talked with, Stover said.
The measure would be specific to areas closed to new water rights.
• Local Enhanced Management Area plans. This measure would allow local governing bodies to develop agreements that could be approved by the state’s chief engineer that would then have the force of law.
Essentially, Stover said, local solutions allow places to develop their own plans instead of being forced to take involuntary actions.
“If you have locally driven solutions, that is the best,” Stover said.
• Multiyear flex accounts for water use. These accounts would allow users to depend on a five-year average.
In a drought year, a water rights holder could draw more water one year and then make up for that by drawing less water the next year. That way, if people happen to have extra water in a year, they will have an incentive to save it for the next few years.
“It’s all voluntary,” and users would sign up if they wanted to use the new flex accounts instead of the old one-year system, said Lane Letourneau, program manager for water appropriation at the Kansas Division of Water Resources.
Water officials hope the new measures will help address the shrinking water resources in the state.
“I don’t think it’s something to be panicked about, but it’s something we should keep an eye on,” Stover said.