Irrigators found in violation
By AMY BICKEL
By AMY BICKEL
Special to The Telegram
At least eight Kansas irrigators cheated on their water usage amid the 2012 drought, according to a state water official.
Six of the irrigators falsified their water use reports and two others tampered with their water meter, said Lane Letourneau, water appropriations program manager for the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources.
Most of those issued penalties for violations were from south-central or southwest Kansas.
Meanwhile, another thousand irrigators, largely from across the southwest quarter of Kansas, were issued noncompliance warnings for overpumping in 2012 — double the number of a typical year — after little relief came from the sky to help their drought-stricken crops, Letourneau said.
In 2012, irrigators overpumped Kansas groundwater an average of 46.3 acre feet, for a total of 11,117 acre feet statewide.
“When these are over by 40 to 50 acre feet, that is a pretty obvious noncompliance,” Letourneau said.
Another 240 were issued civil penalties for overpumping for a second year after being warned — a $500 fine and a reduction of their water right in 2013 from what they overpumped.
And another 15 others received a harsher penalty for their offense — a fine of $1,000 plus a one-year suspension from irrigating from the right.
Letourneau also said the total amount suspended for repeated overpumping was 18,143 acre feet, or about 75.6 acre feet per file.
Those allegedly falsifying their water reports were: Gary Howard, Ulysses; L.R. Inc — a Wichita County farm owned by Ralph K. Reitz of Lawrence; Collingwood Trust, operated by Bill Engler, Hutchinson; Thiessen Family Irrevocable Trust, Inman, Paul S. Thiessen, trustee; Premiere 4 Farms, Grant County, with Justin Shaddix signing the water use report; and Brendan Moore, Oberlin, Moore and Sons.
The two irrigators who allegedly tampered with their meters were Ratzlaff Trust, Farmers National Co., Dighton, and Merle Koehn, Ulysses.
Neither Ratzlaff Trust nor Koehn appealed the charge, Letourneau said. They just paid the fine. Those who are discovered tampering with their meters or falsifying their reports receive a $1,000 civil penalty and a one-year suspension of their water right.
Such actions are disappointing, said southwest Kansas’ Groundwater Management District No. 3 Manager Mark Rude.
“I don’t know if it was part of the drought so much or poor decisions and desperation,” he said. “Certainly, you have a whole community of folks making critical decisions, shutting off the water before the crop is done. Then you find one or two situations where there is someone not being honest. That certainly is not going to be tolerated.”
Groundwater transformed what explorers called the Great American Desert into a Garden of Eden, of sorts. However, the underground reservoir relied upon by farmers to grow crops like corn has been continually declining since the advent of irrigation.
A comprehensive effort to preserve Kansas’ underground reservoirs, including the depleting Ogallala Aquifer that makes up much of western Kansas, has been a goal of Gov. Sam Brownback since taking office.
Thus, in the past year, Brownback’s administration has ramped up efforts to curb overpumping, which should include stricter penalties in 2013, as well as publishing a list of all Kansas violators that would be distributed annually to the media after this irrigation season.
“We really heard a strong message from the governor, plus our legislators” about enforcement of water laws, Letourneau said. “These people who are pumping more than their authorized quantity or falsifying reports, they are gaining over their neighbors who are staying in compliance.”
Letourneau said his department is working on establishing more progressive overpumping fines for the 2013 calendar year. The fourth offense is a water right revocation.
Overpumping is a small fraction of the issue with the dwindling Ogallala, said Rude of the long-range concerns involving southwest Kansas’ economic lifeblood.
“It is a drop in the bucket,” Rude said. “But it is something that can’t be tolerated as we move forward ... on how to conserve and extend it into the future.”
Drought a factor
The drought that plagued the state was the worst in 50 years.
Rain shut off in the fall of 2010. Then summer of 2011 hit. The lack of moisture and nearly 50 days of triple-digit temperatures baked already thirsty crops.
Farmers abandoned wheat fields. They pumped their irrigation systems extra hard to salvage what fall crops remained. Without spring rains, many farmers had to prewater cornfields to get the crop established. Some even abandoned half or entire circles of irrigated corn because their wells could not keep up with the demand.
The multi-year drought did cause more to overpump than normal, Letourneau said, and most weren’t by just a few acre feet, he noted.
Much of the recent increase in overpumping came in 2011 — the heart of the drought — when irrigators’ wells couldn’t keep up with triple-digit temperatures and lack of rainfall. With the agricultural economy staggering, the state’s ag department issued 2,400 drought emergency term permits for 2011, a special one-time program that allows irrigators to pump 2012 water allotments to save their crops that year.
Producers had the option of also enrolling in a new multi-year flex account program that allows irrigators to use more water during drought years by managing their water rights over a five-year period. Those who enrolled in the program in 2012 were forgiven of their overpumping in 2011.
About 750 irrigators have enrolled, but others decided to cut back on their irrigation use in 2012 and not be tied under a government program. Still others, amid another drought year, went ahead and overpumped — with most just issued their first warning.
“2012 was high because our producers were trying to make the best decision for themselves — take the suspension for one year or take their suspension over five years,” Letourneau said. “Some of the producers elected not to go into the (multi-year flex account program) because they felt it would reduce their quality too much.”
In all, farmers pumped roughly an extra 100,000 acre feet of water in 2011, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
Other things will change for those who overpump beyond a warning. Such citations now will be recorded with the local county register of deeds to ensure individuals who purchase land are aware of any water pumping violations.
That means, he added, these violations are held to the owner of the water right, the landowner, not necessarily the tenant.
“The tenant could have provided the bad information, but because the water right is permitted on the land in which it was established, we hold the landowner accountable for the water right violation,” he said. “It all falls on the landowner.”
Letourneau noted that some landowners have protected themselves through lease agreements. During one hearing in 2011, the landowner said his lease agreement assessed a $10,000 penalty on the tenant if he or she “messed anything up.”
“We are seeing some lease agreements where the landowner puts in the lease agreement that the tenant can never break the law,” he said.
For those in violation, there is an appeals process, he said. That includes a hearing and a settlement conference. If not settled there, cases go to a full hearing with an independent officer.
Letourneau, who is in the middle of 2012 settlement conferences this week, said state officials will look past an honest mistake. For those charged in 2012, however, the acts were blatant.
Rains help in 2013
There are 31,000 water rights statewide, Letourneau said. Each field office checks about 1,000 meters each year for accuracy.
That includes Orrin Feril’s district, Big Bend Groundwater Management No. 5 based in Stafford. However, none in the district was issued strict sanctions for violating water laws, Feril said. In fact, his district had the most enroll in the state’s flex account program than of any of the five management areas in the state. About 350 have enrolled so far.
Feril mentioned a newly revised chartered Central Kansas Water Bank was approved in March. It also allows producers to deposit water for future years, with a conservation component required. Producers can also lease water to another water right that they own or someone else owns — also with a conservation component.
The first charter had one user enrolled, he said. The improved new charter already has had one enrollee and several others seriously looking at enrolling.
As for water usage, this year should be better, Feril added, noting that many, including in his district, were warned about their overuse of their right.
“We won’t see those high numbers this year,” he said. “A good part of our area did see the rains in the right times. We got a good snow that helped us out in the beginning, then in August and July, we got 15 inches-plus in four or five days that helped us get the corn going and get us to the end of the year.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Kansas water officials said they were moving ahead with plans to determine the feasibility of building a 360-mile aqueduct to tap the Missouri River to support irrigation agriculture production in western Kansas.
Rude, who attended the meeting, said they were taking a 1982 study “off the shelf” and exploring whether it would help farmers and the economy dependent on the declining Ogallala.