“Non-renewable resource”: As western Kansas dries up, legislature reviews water policy

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For nearly a decade, the drinking water supply of a small town in southwestern Kansas was almost constantly contaminated with dangerous levels of radium, a radioactive element that can cause cancer.

The city of Lakin found dangerous levels of uranium in its water in 2007, said Mike Heinitz, the city administrator. For years, he sent quarterly advisories advising residents they could consume high levels of uranium before opening a multi-million dollar processing facility in 2015.

Now, Lakin’s water meets federal standards. But neighbor Deerfield, downstream on the Arkansas River, may need to deliver Lakin’s water for the same reason.

Uranium and sulphate flow into Kansas from Colorado on the Arkansas River. The water quality in this part of the state is only expected to deteriorate as groundwater supplies are depleted, leading to increased concentrations of contaminants.

It’s one of the myriad of water issues facing Kansas that members of the House Water Committee explored in briefings last year. This legislative session, committee members will seek to reorganize Kansas water agencies and identify long-needed funding for projects.

“We have learned that it is not critical, but it is a situation that we have to face and we have to put a plan in place now,” said Rep. Ron Highland, a Republican from Wamego who chairs the committee. . “And we can’t wait, quite frankly.”

Lakin residents’ water bills have doubled, Heinitz said, to pay for uranium processing. The High Plains aquifer, which supplies water to vast swathes of Kansas, is rapidly depleting, threatening farmers’ access to water and, by extension, the state’s largest industry. And in eastern Kansas, reservoirs that provide drinking water are filling with sediment, forcing Kansas to consider expensive dredging or some other way to protect residents’ access to drinking water.

Highland said the state has, for years, grossly underfunded the projects needed to ensure Kansans – and Kansas farmers – have the water they need to survive.

“Funding is a little trickier,” Highland said, “because we are dealing with education and all of our state’s social programs. And there just isn’t enough money for everyone. world.

Highland did not say how the committee might restructure the 16 state agencies that play a role in regulating water quality and quantity. He has a few ideas but wants to discuss them with colleagues.

But he said he had spoken with Lt. Gov. David Toland about identifying federal funds to help with some water projects.

Uranium in southwestern Kansas

Uranium and sulfate have likely been flowing from Colorado to Kansas for more than 100 years, according to the Kansas Geological Survey.

In 2009, the average uranium content in the Arkansas River at the Colorado-Kansas border was double the standard set for drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency.

And because for decades the high plains aquifer in western Kansas ran out, water entering the state through the Arkansas River doesn’t go far. The river bed is almost always dry from just upstream of Garden City in the east to Larned or Great Bend, said Don Whittemore, a senior researcher with the Kansas Geological Survey.

This means that contamination from Colorado remains in the groundwater of southwestern Kansas, increasing the concentration over time.

“It’s kind of like a positive feedback loop where it becomes more and more focused,” said Erin Seybold, assistant scientist for the survey. “As you continue to lose water, the salt product that remains becomes more and more concentrated. “

At this point, said Whittemore, uranium is not found in high concentrations in grains grown in the region, although it does exist in higher concentrations in the roots of crops. As the salt and uranium accumulate in the closed water basin, he said, more studies are needed.

“Because if we’re going to accumulate this in a closed basin, well, does that mean that in the future these crops will start to increase so that they become a concern?” Said Whittemore.

Over the past two years, the Kansas Geological Survey has analyzed samples to update its understanding of where uranium is concentrated in the region.

Access to water

The high plains aquifer has lost over 60% of its depth in parts of far western Kansas, particularly the western third of the aquifer, known as the Ogallala Aquifer.

Representative Lindsay Vaughn, of Overland Park, is the ranking Democrat on the House Water Committee. She called the Ogallala aquifer “more or less a non-renewable resource”.

“So the water we have in the aquifer is basically all we get, and it has a huge influence on our agriculture industry,” Vaughn said.

In some places there are only 20 years of supply left.

“When you’re in Garden City and you take the bridge over the Ark River, it’s completely dried up,” Vaughn said. “… Just visually it is very evident how present a lack of water is in the daily life of this community and how much of a concern it is, especially for the western part of our state. “

Some farmers in western Kansas have started using underground probes to assess soil moisture and irrigate more strategically. Highland said they have been successful in saving water while maintaining good crop yields, which means their profits have increased.

Highland said he would like to see a cost-sharing program to help more farmers install this technology.

Meanwhile, the wetter eastern part of the state has its own issues.

Reservoirs that provide potable water, such as Tuttle Creek Lake, fill with sediment carried upstream and settle in dyked reservoirs.

Tuttle Creek Lake has lost about half of its storage capacity since it opened 60 years ago. It’s too big for the state to pick up on it, Highland said. He hopes the state can fund a pilot program this year to stir the silt in Lake Tuttle Creek and send it downstream of the river as it would flow without the dam that formed the reservoir.

The year to come

In Kansas, 16 state agencies – from the Adjutant General’s office to the Kansas Forest Service and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment – have overlapping powers over water quality, research, flood management and other issues.

In addition to that, federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Army Corps of Engineers, have jurisdiction over water.

Highland said this creates a potential for significant overlap and confusion for citizens.

One of his priorities for the Water Committee will be to restructure state departments to streamline water policy.

Beyond that, Vaughn and Highland said Kansas water priorities have been underfunded by more than $ 70 million in recent decades.

A working group in 2017 said it would take around $ 55 million a year to fund a long-term vision for water management in Kansas developed under former Governor Sam Brownback.

“We are only scratching the surface of the projects that need to be implemented,” said Vaughn.

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