By Amy Bickel, The Hutchinson News, Kan.
The current design of a plan that would pump Missouri River water 360 miles uphill to water-thirsty western Kansas will probably never flow, state officials say.
With an $18 billion price tag to build it, it's just not feasible, said Tracy Streeter, Kansas Water Office executive director.
"This thing we studied is unlikely to happen," Streeter said. "The components and the costs -- $450 an acre-foot -- are not feasible."
That has given the idea's opponents -- including farmers in northeast Kansas, where prime farmland was being targeted for a large reservoir for the proposed project -- a sigh of relief.
Yet proponents in southwest Kansas, where the Ogallala Aquifer is the driver behind the region's economy, haven't given up hope that some method to pump water from the Missouri River to semiarid western Kansas will someday happen.
In fact, Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3, with donations from regional grain cooperatives, has commissioned a $20,000 study to look at the economic impact to the state if the aqueduct plan never materializes.
GMD 3 Manager Mark Rude said the plan being conducted by an Arizona firm should be completed in a few weeks. He hopes to present the findings to the Kansas Legislature during the current session.
"As far as I am concerned, if people in a certain part of the state think it has gone away -- and that gives them comfort -- then fine," said Rude. "But water transportation is the key for water-short areas in the future. If there is an overabundance in one place and a need in another, the natural process is to develop a transportation system."
The aqueduct plan
With water levels continuing to decline in the Ogallala Aquifer, a state committee was asked to update a similar 1982 analysis that was originally requested by Congress on a similar proposal.
The study revealed earlier this year that building the aqueduct to divert water from the Missouri River uphill to irrigate crops in western Kansas, where underwater storage is being exhausted, would cost $18 billion and require an additional $1 billion a year to operate.
The proposed concrete-lined canal and 15 pump stations would have started near the Doniphan County town of White Cloud, along the Nebraska border, and end near Utica.
But the plan has drawn resistance from many -- and there are several hurdles to clear before it could ever happen. It needs federal and state approval, and the current plan would mean dealing with American Indian tribal rights in Doniphan County -- where the project would start.
Doniphan County farmers also don't like the idea that prime farmland would be used to build one of the state's largest reservoirs, Streeter said. The proposed reservoir at White Cloud would cover 13,000 surface acres -- roughly the same size as Milford Reservoir -- and have 700,000 acre-feet of water.
And, if realized, the state's largest reservoir would be at the end of the aqueduct project -- which would cover 25,000 surface acres with 1.5 million acre-feet of water.
There are also endangered-species issues with the lock and dam proposal, including with the river's pallid sturgeon, Streeter said.
In January, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who has made his opposition well-known, called the project a "hare-brained idea" in his State of the State speech.
"We have no plans to take the study to another level -- or look at things," Streeter told The News on Monday. "What we have looked at doing is starting a conversation with stakeholders in the Missouri River basin."
However, there is still the issue of the depleting Ogallala Aquifer. There, some pockets have declined by more than 150 feet since pre-development, with typical declines in southwest and west-central Kansas of 50 to 150 feet, according to the Kansas Geological Survey.
According to numbers from the Kansas Department of Agriculture last summer, the value of irrigated corn production in southwest Kansas alone was $582.77 million in 2013. Total economic activity generated, however, was more than $842 million.
The economic impact of turning those acres to dryland corn, which could average just 24 bushels an acre compared to more than 200 for irrigation, is significant.
Streeter said that during regional water meetings in western Kansas -- part of Gov. Sam Brownback's 50-year vision to preserve and extend the life of Kansas' water resources -- stakeholders talked of conservation goals, coupled with improvements in crop varieties and technology. They also talked of education.
There is still talk of more Local Enhanced Management Areas (or LEMAS), said Streeter. The state has one successful LEMA in northwest Kansas. Sheridan County's Sheridan 6 water users agreed to reduce pumping -- which is enforced by the ag department's Division of Water Resources.
Streeter said they didn't look at any alternatives to the 1982 study. Moreover, he said, the new study did not take into account environmental costs or increasing land values.
Streeter said there are divisions among members of the Kansas Water Authority about the aqueduct plan. The authority didn't endorse the plan; it merely accepted the findings.
GMD 3's Rude, however, admits there are flaws to the 1982 study, including the fact it could impact endangered species. He noted there would need to be a better way than a lock and dam structure across the river.
"Updating the 1982 study and the work that was done with the Kansas Water Office -- the core was all good," Rude said. "It was a starting point to update the old idea and re-estimate the costs, political and legal points.
"I don't think anyone thought the project the Corps of Engineers threw out there in 1982 was the project to do. It was merely a starting place to look at the possibilities."
Now, said Rude, they just need to find a project that makes sense. The Kansas Aqueduct Coalition is still meeting. The second step after the impact report is complete is to talk to residents in counties along and near the water transportation route -- something that could happen in the next few months.
"Maybe it doesn't originate at White Cloud," Rude said of the project, adding, "We want to work with individual counties on their projections on what they can accomplish in the future with an added water supply."
If Kansas and other Missouri basin states don't come together now, he said, western states where water is limited might push the matter in Congress.
Regarding funding, Rude said there are many possibilities.
"If it is going to be feasible, it would probably have to come up with a combination of private and public funds," he said, comparing it to a Kansas Department of Transportation bypass in the Kansas City area that has a private funder.
Prime land affected
But Ken McCauley, a former National Corn Growers Association president who farms near White Cloud, noted there are many farmers in his area who would be affected if an aqueduct plan moved forward in their area -- including himself.
In his talking points, McCauley stated the study estimates the cost of such a project too low. He also said the plan promotes irrigation that isn't being done today along the aqueduct's path.
McCauley estimated 85 percent of Iowa Township in Doniphan County would be consumed by the project. Moreover, 21 Kansas counties would be affected.
At a water vision meeting this month in Hiawatha, a Kansas Water Office official told attendees the plan was off the table -- that there are too many negatives connected to the Kansas aqueduct project.
More water, McCauley said, isn't the answer. Farmers need to make use of the water that is there in the best way possible while making changes.
"There is no easy fix, i understand that," he said. "It is a tough problem, but I think more things need to be evaluated and this isn't the silver bullet."