Battle over who pays for water plan funding begins in House committee

Reps. Ken Rahjes, Tom Sloan, Ponka-We Victors and Susie Swanson, members of the House Committee on Water and Environment, listen Jan. 31, 2017, during testimony on a bill to increase fees to fund the State Water Plan.

? Western Kansas farmers who irrigate their land are about to find themselves in the center of an intense political battle over who should help pay for a long list of expensive projects over the next 50 years aimed at extending the life of the state’s water resources.

That’s because those farmers, who account for an estimated 80-85 percent of all the water used in Kansas, currently pay nothing into a state fund that pays for those projects.

And as Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration is seeking an additional $43 million a year for the State Water Plan Fund, many lawmakers are now insisting that irrigators start paying something.

“I think there’s a majority of members on the committee that are interested in having them pay,” said Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, who chairs the new House Committee on Water and the Environment.

Sloan’s committee has been tasked with finding a way to fund a long-term “vision” for preserving the state’s water resources that was put together by a special task force that Brownback appointed in 2013.

Reps. Ken Rahjes, Tom Sloan, Ponka-We Victors and Susie Swanson, members of the House Committee on Water and Environment, listen Jan. 31, 2017, during testimony on a bill to increase fees to fund the State Water Plan.

That task force produced its report in January 2015, and since then another “blue ribbon” task force has been working on a proposal to fund it.

That funding proposal, which was released in January, calls for carving out one-tenth of a percent of the state’s existing sales tax, or a little more than $43 million a year, and dedicating that to the State Water Plan Fund. The panel also proposed enacting that through a constitutional amendment so the money could not be swept or transferred for any other purpose.

Although that plan has support from many cities and other groups interested in the water plan, it hasn’t gained much traction among legislators who say the state is having a hard enough time funding basic government services with the revenue it has now.

On Tuesday, the committee heard testimony on an alternative plan that would increase all of the current fees going into the water plan, doubling the fee charged to customers of municipal water systems to 6 cents per 1,000 gallons of water they use each month, and raising the other types of fees.

But it made no mention of levying a fee on irrigation use.

“I see a lot of fee increases in here for everybody but the largest users of water. How come that’s not included in there,” said Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, after legislative staff had explained the bill.

Doug Mays, a former House Speaker who now lobbies on behalf of rural water districts, said those districts opposed any fee increases without requiring some participation from irrigators.

“It would not be fair to ask our water system customers, both urban and rural, to absorb higher fees while those who are responsible for over 80 percent of the consumption of water in Kansas pay zero percent,” he said.

Kent Askern of the Kansas Farm Bureau argued that farmers do contribute to the plan because many of them are customers of the rural water districts that levy the fees, although those fees only apply to the domestic water they use in their homes, not to water the farmers themselves pump from underground.

John Donley of the Kansas Corn Growers Association said farmers who irrigate are, in a way, taxed for the water they pump because irrigated land is valued higher than nonirrigated land for property tax purposes. He conceded, though, that those property taxes don’t go into the state water plan.

The State Water Plan Fund, which was established in 1989, currently gets about $12 million a year in various fees levied on residential and commercial water bills, on farm chemicals and fertilizers, and on stockwater usage.

Those fees currently raise about $12.5 million a year. In addition, though, by statute, the state is supposed to add $6 million each year from the state general fund, plus another $2 million a year from lottery proceeds. But those transfers have not occurred for the last several years as lawmakers, in the face of revenue shortfalls, have elected to keep that money in the general fund.

The bill the committee heard testimony on Tuesday would raise only about $6 million a year in new money, far less than what the Brownback administration is seeking.

Sloan said the money is used for a variety of programs, including paying the state’s share of the cost of operating dams at federal reservoirs, for stream-bank stabilization and other projects meant to protect lakes and rivers, and to fund projects in western Kansas, such as pilot projects for new, water-conserving irrigation systems.

Sloan also acknowledged that many people in western Kansas believe most of the money in the fund is used for projects in eastern Kansas, while many people in eastern Kansas believe they’re paying fees to help irrigators in western Kansas.

“Everybody’s going to protect their turf. I get that,” he said.

Sloan said the committee will hear testimony next week on another bill that would levy a water usage fee on irrigators.