Lawrence lawmaker to be at center of fight over water policy

Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, watches as Gov. Sam Brownback delivers his State of the State address at the Kansas State Capital on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015.

? There are many issues in the Kansas Statehouse that divide politicians and the public along partisan and ideological lines. But there is one issue upon which nearly everyone agrees: the threat that Kansas faces in the decades to come from its fragile and dwindling water supplies.

From underground aquifers in western Kansas that are rapidly being depleted from irrigation to the large reservoirs in eastern Kansas that are silting up from soil erosion upstream, and even to major rivers like the Kansas River that are vulnerable to prolonged drought, nearly everyone agrees that Kansas faces enormous challenges in making sure cities, farms and industries have reliable and sustainable sources of water.

Unfortunately, the bipartisan agreement ends there. Beyond that, there is very little consensus on what, exactly, state government should do about it or how to pay for it.

But Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration and Republican leaders in the Kansas House have decided to make water policy a high priority in the upcoming session. And Republican Rep. Tom Sloan, of Lawrence, is being asked to take charge of efforts to form a consensus about how to pay for tens of millions of dollars worth of projects that state officials say are needed to secure Kansas’ water future.

Last week, House Speaker-elect Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, tapped Sloan to chair a new Water and Environment Committee. Many people, including Sloan, expect that committee will be asked to look at the funding recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel that Brownback appointed to come up with a 50-year plan for managing the state’s water resources.

Sloan said last week that he thinks it’s time for Kansas to completely re-examine how it uses and pays for water.

“I want to really explore the value of water,” he said. “We charge for it, but are we collecting the value for what it’s worth? That’s not necessarily to raise money, but we do have to assure the long-term availability from our reservoirs and aquifer.”

Shortages east and west

According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas alone is responsible for $2 billion a year in beef production and $1.75 billion a year in corn production. The irrigated land above it is valued at roughly $5 billion.

In eastern Kansas, manmade reservoirs provide water to two-thirds of the state’s population. Those reservoirs are also crucial for about 60 percent of electricity production in the state, which is valued at nearly $2 billion a year.

If the state does nothing over the next 50 years, KDHE has said, 70 percent of the aquifer will be depleted and 40 percent of the irrigated land above it will no longer be able to support irrigation.

In addition, the water supply in federal reservoirs will be 40 percent filled with sediment, and five of the seven basins that support reservoirs won’t be able to meet demand during a drought.

“We have projections in multiple areas of the state that say if we don’t take more aggressive action than what we have been, we will suffer shortages in the next 50 years, and in some areas much sooner than that,” said Tracy Streeter, who heads the Kansas Water Office.

Long-term planning

Streeter was part of a blue-ribbon task force that Brownback appointed in 2013 to come up with a 50-year plan for managing the state’s water resources. That group issued its report in January 2015, calling for a laundry list of actions.

Some recommendations were comparatively simple, such as encouraging farmers to switch to low-water crops and encouraging consumers to be more efficient in their water use.

But others, such as dredging silt out of federal reservoirs, as is being done now at John Redmond Reservoir, and possibly finding locations for additional lakes, would be huge expenses in the coming years.

Since the release of that report, another committee has been working on a plan to provide permanent and stable funding for it. The estimated cost: nearly $43 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, then $51 million to $55 million for each of the next four years.

Streeter said a draft funding plan has been circulating among the committee members and will be submitted to the Legislature when it convenes in January. Most notably, it calls for carving out a portion — one-tenth of a cent — of the state’s existing sales tax and earmarking that for state water projects.

That would provide about $38 million in the first year and $47 million to $50 million a year after that.

But at a time when the state is facing chronic revenue shortfalls, and with the likelihood of a Kansas Supreme Court order to spend more money on public schools, even Streeter admitted the plan faces an uphill battle.

“You couldn’t exist in a more challenging time to try to redirect any revenue from where it’s at to water. That’s a given,” he said. “When you look at the budget shortfalls and some of the challenges the Legislature is going to be dealing with, it’s certainly going to be a tall order.”

Potential opposition

Besides the controversial sales tax proposal, one issue that is certain to come up is the fact that Kansas already has, on paper at least, a revenue stream that has been in place for several years to fund water projects.

It includes fees assessed on residential, commercial and industrial bills, as well as fees charged to irrigators. It also is supposed to include a regular $6 million annual transfer from the state general fund as well as a portion of the proceeds from Lottery sales.

But in recent tight budget years, lawmakers have not been making those transfers.

“We have been under funding for most of the last six to eight years,” Sloan said.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, who will take over as House minority leader in January, said he agrees with the need to provide stable funding for water programs, and he shares Sloan’s frustration that funding already in place has been diverted. But he said the idea of a dedicated sales tax is likely to go nowhere.

“Sales taxes are regressive. The governor has tapped them twice in the last three years,” he said. “So I would be surprised if the Legislature would have an appetite to raise sales taxes a third time.”

Ward agreed that the cost of doing nothing on water policy now could end up costing the state more in the future. But he said given the state’s current financial situation, he thinks it’s questionable whether funding a long-term water plan will get much traction this year.

“That’s the problem when you run a government in a constant crisis,” he said. “You don’t get much strategic planning. You just deal with the crisis in front of you and it sucks all of the oxygen out of the room. I do think water is a priority to a lot of legislators. Whether or not it gets any daylight because of funding issues remains to be seen.”