Alleviating water woes remains an uphill struggle for region
By TIM UNRUH
Special to The Telegram
Thirst for water in drought-plagued western Kansas has resurrected a 31-year-old federal study that proposes pumping Missouri River water some 400 miles to the southwest part of the state.
Mark Rude, executive director of Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3 in Garden City, is pushing a project that could ease some water woes for the state.
The time might be ripe, he said, to revisit part of the 1982 High Plains Ogallala Aquifer Regional Resources Study by the federal Department of Commerce. The study was done to satisfy a 1976 congressional mandate to examine declining water supplies in the High Plains.
An economy that's important to the entire state has flourished since irrigation developed in western Kansas during the middle 20th century. But the crucial natural resource that drives commerce in that region — groundwater pumped from the massive aquifer — is drying up.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers portion of the study mapped ways to take excess flows from the Missouri River near White Cloud in extreme northeast Kansas and pump the water 1,800 feet upstream, in an aqueduct through central Kansas into the southwestern region, possibly near Utica.
Along the way, some of the water could benefit cities such as Salina and Wichita.
"We've got a tremendous amount of water in the east and only a small fraction of it is usable to Kansas at this point," Rude said.
12 vital counties
The project, which could cost $12 billion or more to build and be expensive to maintain, might sound far-fetched, he admits, but a look at the long-term ramifications of the drying aquifer might change some minds.
Kansas' 12 southwestern counties account for roughly two-thirds of the agriculture output value in the state, he said, making the region vital to all 105 counties.
"People are slowly becoming serious about it," Rude said. This year alone, he has pitched the project to the Kansas Water Authority and two Kansas Senate committees.
"The Legislature is slowly engaging it," Rude said.
His strategy is to influence a forward-looking mindset and decide whether the revenue-producing system that's been built in irrigation-laden western Kansas can continue to help sustain the entire state's economy.
"It's a conversation that Kansas must have," Rude said.
The class of 2026
He asks folks to consider what youngsters in kindergarten will face when they graduate high school in 2026.
"That's a huge question for them and their parents. We've got everything we need to be successful into 2026, except sustainable water," Rude said.
The Kansas Water Office has endorsed updating the old study and is splitting the $300,000 cost with the Corps. Rude said Groundwater Management District No. 3 is paying half of the water office's portion.
"We're hoping other local folks will chip in," he said.
A project with merit
Such a project has merit when one part of Kansas needs water and another part has too much, said Tracy Streeter, water office director.
"When you go back to 2011, when the entire state was in a pretty significant drought, we saw record-breaking flood flows in the Missouri (River), causing economic devastation downstream," he said. "That's what's resonating with me."
Streeter will touch on the Kansas Aqueduct Project during his overview on the state of water in Kansas this morning at the Governor's Water Conference in Manhattan. The conference is at the Hilton Garden Inn & Conference Center.
"I suspect it will get a lot of conversation," Streeter said.
Pumping it uphill
The Kansas project would take 4 million acre feet out of the Missouri River a year; 29.5 million acre feet passes White Cloud each year, Rude said. An acre foot is 325,851 gallons, or the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land a foot deep.
Water would be available only when the flow is above the base of 40,000 cubic feet a second during the navigation season in the spring and summer, he said, or flows above 15,000 cfs during the non-navigation season. One cubic foot is 7.48 gallons.
Exactly how water would come from the river hasn't been proposed. Rude said Kansas prefers drilling bank storage wells that would pump water from lateral lines under the river and dump it into either a reservoir or straight into a concrete-lined aqueduct, or ditch. Using a series of 16 lift pump stations, Rude said, the water could be pushed uphill.
Pipe is more costly
Assuming the proposed southern route from the 1982 Corps study would be used, the project would create "nearly 80 miles of lazy river across the northern Flint Hills between two of those lift stations," he said.
Given that evaporation would result in losses of 1.5 to 3 percent, Rude said that percentage of loss is relatively low.
"A pipeline would save water and land, but the added cost would be tremendous," he said.
The Corps estimated in 1982 that an aqueduct would cost up to $5 billion to build and $475 million a year to maintain, Streeter said. Adjusted for inflation, those amounts would be $12.1 billion and $1.15 billion, respectively, according to a federal Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.
It's a long shot
The water office's Streeter is for exploring opportunities.
"I think it's a long shot, but until we update the numbers, it's a little difficult to have an intelligent conversation about it," he said. "I still think there will be interstate challenges and opposition to taking water out (of the river) for any purposes."
Based on the "first in time, first in right" doctrine under Kansas law, Rude said, "Kansas cannot afford not to file an appropriation right away with the Kansas Department of Agriculture as an early step in the project conversation."
More than just crops
Irrigating crops is just one solution for the project, Rude said, and in fact, other customers would be essential to justify an aqueduct.
"Agriculture cannot bear this cost on its own," Rude said. "The live-or-die of this project is how many different aspects of the Kansas economy would this aqueduct serve, from wildlife to tap water."
Cities could be huge customers.
"We do think it has a potential benefit for Wichita," said Joe Pajor, deputy director of the city of Wichita's public works and utilities department.
"At this point, it's long-range. It would be a huge project with a number of obstacles to overcome," he said. "But the Romans could say the same thing."
Wichita needs more detail, Pajor said, such as what the water might cost.
"It's a big long-term project that's just getting started," he said.
Knocking on doors
It's clear that people in southwest Kansas know where water is available, said Jason Gage, Salina city manager.
"They're trying to bring that water to where it's needed most in the state," he said. "Typically, aqueducts and piping projects that cover a significant distance are very expensive. In order to pay for the project, they'd have to knock on the door of every potential user along the way."
Salina has been involved in long-term water planning for five to seven years, Gage said.
"Any source we have to look at is a good option," he said.
But is Salina interested?
"Until there is a cost associated with the water, it's difficult for us to tell," Gage said.
Father of the project
At this point, Rude "is the unofficial spokesman for a nonexistent project, but if it happens someday, they'll call him the father of it," Pajor said. "He's the voice trying to drum up interest in further study. I can't imagine anyone being against further study."
Rude insists this is a project that "must be considered" by all of Kansas.
Cost and other factors do offer barriers, he said, and some may criticize western Kansas for how water has been managed in the past, "But you can't ignore the economy that it creates for Kansas farms, families and communities."
What matters now is the situation today, he said.
"You can come up with a lot of reasons why it can't work," Rude said, "but we're trying to focus on how it can."