Interim committee will push Legislature to fully fund water conservation, cleanup plan

An interim committee dedicated to studying the state’s natural resources will push the Legislature to fully fund Kansas’ water plan that coordinates conservation and cleanup, legislators decided Monday.

 

The water plan has not been fully funded since 2008, and the state didn’t allocate any resources toward it between July 2015 and June 2017, according to the Kansas Water Office. The plan is supposed to receive $8 million each year from the state general fund and lottery revenues.

Legislators and state environment officials said the plan needs to be fully funded to ensure Kansans have access to clean drinking water and reservoirs can provide a reliable fallback during drought years. Without full funding, that availability could suffer as farmers work to slow depletion of groundwater in the Ogallala Aquifer and the water plan takes aim at reducing sediment buildup in drinking water supply lakes.

Committee chairman Tom Sloan, a Lawrence Republican, said he thought funding the water plan was “even more important than the quality of our educational opportunities.”

“The future of the state of Kansas will be determined by the availability, the quantity and the quality of the water,” Sloan said.

Sloan said reducing sediment buildup was important for water supplies in eastern Kansas. In western Kansas, the plan takes aim at evaluating water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer and funds water conservation education efforts, he said.

“If there’s no water here, no one will live in Kansas,” Sloan said.

Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, said he thought it was important for people to know reservoirs and water infrastructure protect them from feeling the effects of drought. He said the Milford and Tuttle Creek reservoirs can release water to help maintain flows down the Kansas River during drought years, often without users realizing it.

“All of these things that we want to work on aren’t necessarily addressing a crisis today, but it’s a crisis that we can envision in the next 50 years if we don’t take proactive steps now,” Streeter said.

Streeter said protecting watersheds and reducing sediment flows, providing incentives to farmers to improve irrigation practices and conserve water, educating the public and investing in research should be priorities for officials addressing water policy.

Full funding of the water plan also could help cleanup efforts for drinking water. Jaime Gaggero, director of the bureau of water at the Kansas Department for Health and Environment, said her agency could get additional resources to combat harmful algae blooms in reservoirs that supply drinking water, prevent water contamination and stop erosion of stream banks. She said her agency’s priorities focused on preventing contaminants from entering the water, which is less costly than cleaning it up. In recent years, it has been difficult to get those resources, she said.

“If we can prevent the contaminants from getting into the surface water or the groundwater, then everybody wins, and it’s a lot cheaper than remediation,” Gaggero said.

Gaggero said harmful algae blooms are caused when nitrates from fertilizers get into water. When the algae decomposes, it releases harmful toxins. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, direct exposure to toxic algae can cause rash, serious stomach or liver illness, respiratory problems or neurological effects.

Sen. Marci Francisco, a Lawrence Democrat, said she would like to see resources allocated upstream, where toxins enter the water, to reduce the strain on municipalities that have to clean it up.

In pushing for the funding, Sloan said he would stress the Legislature’s legal obligation to fund the water plan and long-term needs for sustainable water sources. Asked whether he would be successful, he said it would be difficult for the cash-strapped state, though $8 million is a small portion compared to the state budget.

“What’s that old song? You know, ‘You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit in the wind,’ ” Sloan said, quoting Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”

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