Views from Kansas: Water supply a dire issue

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

Much concern centers on the badly depleted Ogallala Aquifer, which ag-driven western Kansas needs to survive and prosper. The underground water supply has been drained at rates faster than nature can replenish it, mostly due to farm irrigation used to combat dry conditions.

Understandably, discussions on water use have become more passionate as Kansans realize the state’s stake in agriculture is in jeopardy. Agriculture accounts for more than 50 percent of the Kansas economy, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture, with much of the production out west.

Being more careful with water isn’t just the responsibility of farmers, though. Manufacturing and residential consumers should embrace stepped-up conservation efforts, as well.

Government also must step in.

Former Gov. Sam Brownback was roundly criticized for his economic policies — particularly his massive income tax-cut approach that wreaked budgetary havoc — but did deserve credit for spearheading the 50-year Kansas Water Vision, a blueprint to ensure the supply of water is sufficient to meet growing needs.

With state finances in turmoil in recent years due to the significant loss of income-tax revenue, however, serious attempts to conserve water weren’t feasible. Those challenges and specific strategies were addressed recently in Manhattan during the Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water in Kansas.

Rep. Doug Blex, an Independence Republican and self-proclaimed “strong conservative,” made sense when he suggested statewide sales tax revenue could create stable financing for Kansas water programs: for example, securing access to water stored in reservoirs built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Among other strategies on a long list of possibilities: rehabilitating reservoirs that are silting in, and water management pacts among producers called Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs), voluntary agreements to scale down irrigation.

State budget woes in recent years meant education funding and other issues took precedence over water. Now, with lost income-tax revenue recently restored by lawmakers, Kansas is in better shape financially to pursue meaningful water-conservation measures. Gov.-elect Laura Kelly has promised as much.

Water should indeed be a centerpiece of every legislative session in Kansas, where there’s much to lose without responsible investment in the future of agriculture, the state’s economic lifeblood.

— Originally published in the Topeka Capital-Journal

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