When the City of Hays purchased the R9 Ranch in Edwards County in 1995, the sitting mayor, Robert Albers, said turning the ranch into a municipal water source would be “a long period of transition.”
He was right. The cities of Hays and Russell have spent the 20-some years since working to end irrigated agriculture on the ranch and gather information to change the water rights located on the ranch for municipal use. In May, the cities took another step closer.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Water Resources released a draft master order approving a change-order application that would convert water use on the city-owned property from agricultural to municipal in May. The news came after a three-year wait. The cities sent in the change application in June 2015.
The approval is not yet final, though, and a public information meeting was hosted at the Twilight Theatre June 21 in Greensburg to discuss the application.
“Part of the process of processing applications like these changes is to get input from the nearbys,” said David Barfield, chief engineer with KDA-DWR. “So the purpose is to inform you all and then get feedback that we can use to evaluate as part of the decision making process.”
Barfield will make the final decision on approval of the application after receiving public input and comments from Groundwater Management District No. 5, which includes the R9 Ranch.
Representatives from the cities of Hays and Russell presented the change application, which outlines the consolidation of 58 points of diversion on the R9 ranch — places where water is diverted to the surface — into 14 wells for municipal water use.
Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty stated the original change application would shift a maximum of 7,625 acre feet of water for consumptive use per year, which according to data collected on the R9, would be lower than the historic irrigation diversion of around 8,000 ac/ft.
The current application decreases the maximum allowed, per-year diversion to 6,756 ac/ft., and the cities have agreed to meet a 10-year rolling average of 4,800 ac/ft. per year — meaning the cities can divert up to the maximum amount of water in one year, but must divert less in other years to meet the rolling average.
“It’s not in the cities’ best interests and the R9 will not be a long-term economic project if we don’t use it sustainably,” Dougherty said. “The cities feel we are going above and beyond on sustainable use of the property.”
Not everyone agrees with Dougherty’s sentiment. A second presentation during the meeting was given by Andrew Keller, Ph.D., an engineer from Keller-Bliesner Engineering of Logan, Utah. Keller was contracted by the Water Protection Association of Central Kansas to perform a second study on water use at the R9 Ranch.
Keller gave his presentation remotely during the meeting and repeatedly stated that the current plan in the cities’ change application was not sustainable. He believes the numbers used by the cities’ engineer Burns & McDonnell are inflated.
Keller’s presentation put the maximum yearly diversion at around 5,500 ac/ft. and the number for the 10-year rolling average around 3,500 ac/ft. per year. Keller also suggested that the change application proposed is contingent on recharge in the mid-Ark subbasin remaining at its current average of two inches per year, but spatial analysis and water budgets show historical groundwater storage decreases in the area of the R9.
Barfield refuse to comment on Keller’s presentation, stating this was the first time he or the cities and their legal representatives had a chance to see it. He did take comments from the audience to be considered in his decision.
Several Edwards County residents expressed concerns with the current state of the change application and encouraged KDA-DWR to make sure the plan is sustainable.
“The Kansas DWR and the cities need to earnestly do their due diligence in considering all the information and comments given here," said Pat Janssen, rural Kinsley farmer. "This water is our future."
If the change application is officially approved, the cities will move on to their Water Transfer Act application, which was submitted in 2016, but is contingent on approval of the change application.
Because the cities’ plan involves moving more than 2,000 ac/ft. of water more than 35 miles from Edwards County to Hays and Russell, the plan will have to meet a set of requirements under the state’s Water Transfer Act as well.
Public comments regarding the change application can be submitted to KDA-DWR online through July 13 at http://agriculture.ks.gov/divisions-programs/dwr/water-appropriation/change-applications/hays-change-and-water-transfer.
Comments on the application from GMD No. 5 are due to KDA-DWR by Aug. 31.
Changes could lead to another public hearing and changes by the cities, meaning approval could take another 18 to 30 months.
Alesa Miller contributed to this story.