Hello welcome to the Kansas reflect your podcast. I'm Alison kite. Today we're talking about water. For generations, the aquifer that supplies western Kansas with water has been in decline, largely due to overpumping for crop irrigation. parts of the state have just 10 or 20 years of water left. Representative Lindsey Vonn who served as the ranking Democrat on the Kansas house Water Committee, joins us to talk about it. Thank you, Representative on for joining us.
Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.
So for the last session of the legislature, you were the ranking minority member ranking Democrat on the House Water Committee, which is what we're going to be talking about today. Can you tell us broadly about the issue that we're facing in Kansas, both over the long term when it comes to water and the crunch that we're in because we are in a drought this year?
Yeah. So with water in Kansas, we are dealing with significant water quantity and quality issues across the board. And we have really underfunded water over time. And last year was the first year since 2008, that we fully funded the water plan. So I think there's been a lack of resources. And it is exciting that there's a renewed focus on this issue. So for water quality, we talk a lot about things like the toxic algal blooms and some of our reservoirs, we have concerns around nitrates and our groundwater, as well as uranium in our groundwater in some parts of the state as well. So looking at how we can improve water quality. And then in terms of water quantity, we're facing significant issues in our High Plains Aquifer across the western part of the state, with serious levels of decline, which is you kind of alluded to has really been exacerbated by the ongoing drought that we're experiencing. And then in the eastern part of our state with our reservoirs, we have a lot of sedimentation that's piling up and decreasing both the water supply and the extreme weather mitigation supply, and all those sorts of things. So last year, we were able to find a water injection dredge pilot that will hopefully start to create a sustainable long term, long term solution to some of that sedimentation. But that's also a significant concern with quantity in the eastern part of the state.
Right? And can you talk a little bit about the significance of the aquifer for western Kansas, obviously, folks from eastern Kansas, get their water from rivers, reservoirs, the aquifer is a huge source of water in western Kansas, can you talk about how important it is for those communities?
Yeah, through being on the water committee, I've been really fortunate to get to visit western Kansas, and meet a lot of local people and visit the communities there. And it's clear just how much the communities rely on the aquifer, both for municipal water supply, but also for agriculture. In particular, 97% of the aquifer that's used in the western part of the state goes towards your irrigated pumping and, and so really, it's it's their primary source of water in all of Western Kansas. And if we don't find a way to conserve the aquifer and extend the life of the aquifer for the future, then it could very much mean the demise of some of those communities. And I think it's our responsibility as a state to ensure that doesn't happen and to work with local communities to ensure the longevity of this water supply for generations to come. Right.
And we've known for a long time that the aquifer in western Kansas is depleting. Has the debate evolved or intensified in the last couple of years? In your opinion? And how have you seen it change?
Yeah, I think there's been a lot of bipartisan interest in the issue of water. You know, during my time on committee, we've talked a lot about the former Governor Brown backs interest in this issue. And you know, he's the one who started the governor's conference on the future of water, and put together the Blue Ribbon Task Force to talk about what would it actually cost to fully fund the water vision in Kansas, which was decided would be closer to 55 million, instead of the 8 million that we currently allocate. So there's an interest there. And then I think, while the conversation kind of really picked up at that time, not a lot of action was taken, for numerous region reasons. And so recently, I feel like with the job conditions, and just a lot of our committee work, especially last year, thank you, thanks to the great work of the former chair, Representative Ron Hyland, who really took a an interest and a passion in this issue and did a great job leading our committee. And, you know, together our committee was able to put forward a bill that would address some of these issues and there was a lot of input for that bill on all sides of the spectrum. And I think that really was a launchpad for some of the current dialogue. And just based on what I've heard, the interest is really continuing into next session and has continued in the interim. So I'm hopeful that we'll continue to make progress in the new year.
Certainly. Terrific. And I should note for our listeners, we're recording this podcast on December 5, we just had leadership elections in the Kansas house. So committee assignments and such are still a little bit up in the air. But as you noted, Representative Ron Hyland, who is retiring, chaired that committee, you were the ranking Democrat. on that committee. Can you tell us a little bit about the legislation that was offered last year and the discussion that you had in that committee?
Yeah, so the legislation really centered around three major components. So as I mentioned, funding has been a chronic long term concern, we have been under funding it. And even though we say quote, we're fully funding it at the 8 million currently, as we mentioned, with the task force, there, it's estimated to really cost closer to 55 million a year to do justice to this crucial resource. And so part of the conversation was, how do we create that level of funding, we talked about a sales tax carve off, there was pretty broad support for doing something like that, that was looking back the recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Task Force. So that was one major component of the bill, another was looking at, you know, what is preventing good management of this resource, and how have we gotten to this current place where we're at. And as we kind of looked into this issue, one thing we saw is that all the agencies and programs and organizations dedicated to advocating for water are spread across the government. And it leads to a greater inability or less of an ability to really adequately advocate for this resource resource at all levels from just you know, really efficiencies all the way up to not getting federal funds, because we don't have the level of investment and cooperation that would be needed to achieve those types of projects or receive those types of grants. So one part of the legislation, the bill that we put forward was also to consolidate all of those agencies into a Department of Water and environment. So that was another big discussion. And then the final portion had to do with the groundwater management districts, which are the local entities responsible for conserving and extending extending the usable life of the aquifer. And it dealt with various things related to GMDs, including their voting structure, some of their financial reporting, and then kind of their rules around how often they have to come up with management plans and what those need to include.
And that bill did not get out of committee in that form. Can you talk a little bit about what came out of committee and where that Bill ended up at the end of last session?
Yes. So unfortunately, the bill as proposed did get gutted in committee at the 11th hour, and a substitute amendment was proposed that would just focus on the funding. And then we did successfully amend it to include some of the financial reporting. That was included previously for the GMDs. So it was just the funding mechanism and the GMD reporting element that made it out of committee. And I think there was lack of consensus whether that was the best way to move forward. I think, generally, there's a concern that, you know, on one hand, we do need the money, and we need to put that level of investment into our water projects and programs. But then also, unless we can all agree on some sort of regulation or some sort of limit on pumping, then, you know, we're not, you're just going to end up in the same place, kind of like with what is called Jevons paradox, where if you use a resource more efficiently, and you fund all these irrigation technologies that make it more efficient to pump water, unless you also combine that with some sort of limit on how much can be pumped, then you're actually going to increase pumping. So the idea is that, in my mind is that some sort of regulation or recognition of pumping limits has to go hand in hand with that funding? Although I don't want to hold the funding hostage. I think that has to be part of the conversation. So that was my personal view on the bill and why I didn't originally vote for the gutted version, especially because of all the work that went into that and then to have it gutted at the 11th hour, it was really heartbreaking. So that's the version that came out because there was lack of consensus and never came above the line in the body of the whole and we never voted on it last year.
Right? And we talked him after that committee vote and the the words you use at the time were that we just be throwing more money at the problem. Yeah. To pass that bill. Is that pretty much how you still feel at this point?
Yeah, I that was definitely in the heat of the moment. I, you know, no matter what we need to increase investments if we're going to solve this problem. But I think if we only focus on that element, we're missing a big part of the picture. And I think that's what I was really speaking to in the moment is, if we don't have that conversation, then we're going to be back here and four years, again, with the same having the same conversation,
right. And then a certain way, we are right back where we were at the beginning of last session, and that bill didn't get, you know, out of the house. So as we prepare for the next session, starting here in about a month, where are we in terms of what we're doing as a state about water?
Yeah, well, I'm really excited. I've seen a lot of movement. And the interim first, at the governor's conference on the future of water in Kansas, the governor attended Governor Kelly, and committed and stated her commitment to really advocating for water and making sure that it's available for future generations. So for me, that indicates that the governor's office is getting serious about this issue, which is very exciting. Last year, they fully funded the water plan. And I'm hoping that this year, we can do even more, so excited to see what they come forth with. And then also looking at our Kansas Water Authority. Also excited I recently attended a subcommittee meeting they had, and they're looking at putting forth a recommendation to the full Water Authority, which means in December, so this would not be official, but as for the consideration of the entire authority, that the state should change its current policy of depletion around our groundwater resources. And there's actually an example and statute that says, To summarize, essentially, you know, we can deplete so much, I think it's like 20%, and 45, or 40% and 20 years, I'm probably getting those numbers mixed up. But the concept of that there is actual plan to depletion and our statutes. And, you know, that's not what we want, because we, this is essential to our future, and we need this resource. And if we're going to really take meaningful action around it, then that policy has to change. And for me, that's really powerful. Because through this process, you see, and some parties and unwillingness to really verbalize the problem to say, we are mining our aquifer right now. And if something doesn't change, then we're not going to, I mean, those communities may not exist, and 20 years, 30 years, and there's no viable alternative right now, that's been recognized. And so for everyone to to get around and recognize what the problem is, and say we're ready to move forward with meaningful action. It sounds like a small step. But I think that's actually in my mind a really big step. And I hope that the water authority decides to take that action, and that they can put pressure on the legislature to move forward, as well as agencies and other stakeholders to really come up with a real plan for what we're going to do. So I know that's going on. And then I know there are different advocacy groups that really got involved with the bill and that have continued to stay involved. I know, read out of Wichita is staying involved. I know the League of Municipalities put out a statement saying they're gonna prioritize water this year quality and quantity. So there are just tons of different stakeholders that have really come to the forefront to say they're going to make this a priority. So in my mind, that means that we're really, that there's a lot of potential here. And that that's really exciting to me for this next session.
Right. And from what we understand, it sounds like there is still going to be a dedicated House Committee on water. How, how do you feel about about that hanging around?
So excited? We just I kind of heard that today, too. I you know, it's not confirmed like that I've heard but I'm it sounds like that's going to be the case, which would be phenomenal. I think a lot of people have expressed interest in it and want to continue this conversation. So, you know, I, of course, feel very passionate about it. So I'm really excited that they're talking about bringing it back and hopefully, or would love to be on that committee, of course, if I'm able to, because I think we're in a really exciting place to continue to make progress. And I'm hoping the committee takes that seriously this year. Sure. Yeah.
Circling back on the the policy of depletion I think I'm certainly surprised to hear maybe it's just me, but I would think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that we have kind of a stated policy as as I state to deplete the aquifer that this is not something that is you know, kind of Uh, an an issue that we're, we're dealing with that the state didn't take an active part in creating. So that makes sense. How do you, you know, thinking about the fact that past legislatures and administrations have essentially had a plan to, or not a plan, but a policy of depleting the aquifer? What, what does that make you think?
Yeah, it's difficult, because part of me understands all the opportunity costs involved, you know, the aquifer is crucial to municipalities, and, you know, agriculture, which is, you know, generates $5 billion of our GDP and in Kansas, and just, you know, there are a lot of competing interests, but at the same time, it's, at this point, really a non renewable resource, it's finite. And so we have to take a proactive stance and conserving it and extending the life of the aquifer for future generations. And so, you know, it's kind of it's, it's, it's a hard legacy, because you understand why they may have chosen to do it. But ultimately, it set us up for failure in the long term, because, you know, now, we're in a position where we're even more pressed to make a change, because if we don't, then the the consequences are going to be significant. So I think it is representative of the fact that we keep kicking the can down the road. And we're in that moment where we conside can decide whether we want to keep doing that, whether we want to keep mining the aquifer and accept that fate. Or if we want to do the hard thing and come together and really try and change our future. And we're in a place with the aquifer right now, where we really can make a meaningful difference, you know, we can still reach stable levels of the use of the aquifer, we can ultimately stop decline if we work together and come up with a solution. And I'll get on board with changing the future because it's now or never,
right? And of course, nobody would say, Well, I want to train the uncle for I don't want there to be any water in western Kansas. So what are the things that get in the way of getting something done? When presumably everybody wants there to be water in western Kansas for generations to come?
Yeah, I think it's a complex thing to face. On one hand, you know, you recognize that you say I don't, I want this to be available for future generations, I don't want to my town to go away. I don't want western Kansas to dry up and for there not to be a future here. But on the other hand, you know, it's all you know, you don't get in an extent. And then I think there are people in positions of power right now who are reinforcing that view that we can just keep doing what we're doing, and it's going to be okay, or, you know, there's, there are myths that we're going to have this silver bullet solution with things like the Aqua docked, and we're just going to pipe in water from the Missouri River. And that's going to be our Savior in the future. When in reality, there are so many barriers to anything like that ever happening from, you know, legal barriers, energy, energy barriers, hydrological barriers, billions and billions of dollars of barriers. And if we're not good stewards of a resource, it's going to be that much more, more difficult to get federal dollars or loans to ever fund a project like that. So, you know, augmentation may be a conversation in the future. But first, we have to be really good stewards of the resource that we have. And I think for some folks, it's been difficult to reconcile the future with the present to say, if I want water to be here in the future, then I have to change my actions now. And I can do something about that in the present. And so I think, agreeing on the problem, and really honing in on the tools we have and pushing those as solutions to our ultimate problem, and then coming together to realize that we're not alone in this. I think those are all things we can do to really change the narrative around narrative around this and make it less scary, less uncertain, because we know that we have the tools we need to stop decline, and we can do it by working together.
Sure. And you mentioned the Kansas aqueduct, that's a project that some folks have proposed to pipe Missouri River or water from the Missouri River into Kansas. Can you talk about you mentioned some of the challenges? I think one of them is that that would be uphill? Yeah, that correct, literally. Can you talk about some of the other challenges inherent in doing something like that?
Yeah. So yeah, so hydrologically It would be uphill, so it would be against the current so that's a challenge and to do that you need signal The current levels of energy, it's not even clear if we would currently have enough energy production in the state to make something like that operational. And then you have legal challenges, you know, there are interstate issues around the use of the Missouri River. So, you know, if we were to propose a project like that everyone who relies on the Missouri River is going to be up in arms. And you know, there are going to be tons of lawsuits involved with that. There's obviously associated with all of that a cost challenge. I mean, we're talking like $60 billion to do something like this. So there are all those challenges. And again, it comes down to if we don't change our relationship with the resource, you're just pushing the can down the road yet again. You know, with augmentation, it would be the same. So why don't we use the tools we have now to really conserve this precious resource. And then if we have to have a conversation about augmentation, fine, but let's not rely on that is this sort of like mythological solution, because from every thing that I've seen, there's no real cost benefit analysis that's been done all of those challenges stand in the way, I don't see it being feasible in the near future, let alone the fact that a project like that would would take maybe 50 years at the least that's probably an underestimate. And part of the aquifer, if used at its current rate of extraction will be gone by then. Right. So we're proposing the solution that doesn't actually solve the problem and the here and now. And so I think those are some of the myriad of issues that are wrong with it. And it's most toxic, because it creates, like I kind of mentioned earlier, this idea that there is an easy solution to get out of this. And there is no easy solution, it's going to take a lot of hard work, and a lot of people coming together to decide what kind of future they want to have. And that means conserving the aquifer and doing everything we can to make sure that it's there for future generations. And that's going to take all of us.
And what are your plans for the upcoming session when it comes to water you whether or not you're on the committee? Are you hoping to have some part in the discussion?
Oh, absolutely. Can't get rid of me. But yes, I love this issue. It's it for so many different reasons. I think, you know, just the fact that it's very bipartisan, there's interest on all sides of the aisle to make progress on this. The fact that it's an environmental issue, and this is a finite issue that we can really make progress on and make a huge difference on. And I think that's, in my mind, kind of like a microcosm of climate change holistically where if we can solve this difficult problem here in Kansas, there's no reason that we can't tackle climate change on a broader scale. And so from an environmental lens, it's, it's important to me, and then most, especially because of the people, you know, all the people that I've gotten to know in western Kansas and the groundwater management districts, and agencies, local producers, they are why I'm so passionate about this, because they care, they're looking for solutions. They want people in positions of power to pay attention and to try and help them come up with local solutions and to really make this a priority, because for them, it's the matter of existing in 50 years and not and I think it's it's really important that we pay attention. So those are all the reasons that I really love it and hope to stay involved the session.
Great. Last question, What Should folks be on the lookout for in terms of news on water? We've got a Kansas Water Authority meeting coming up, we've got an audit underway. Can you talk a little bit about what's around the corner?
Yes. So I think those things will inform legislation that may come out next year, I know, I'm interested in either supporting or putting forth some bills that likely, you know, were part of the conversation last year, but may look a little bit different. And in terms of those two things, you know, hopefully the AWA will make some concrete recommendations. And that can be a basis for moving forward. And then the legislative post audit you mentioned, that was something that we did this past year, and it's a deep dive into our groundwater management districts which have never been audited, and they're almost 50 years of existence. So, you know, there are some GMDs who are taking this issue really seriously and there is, you know, one or two, that that really isn't and so, what is working for the GMDs that are doing what the what they need to be doing to conserve this precious resource and what is not happening and those that are not doing that. And so I'm really doing a deep dive into their operations and what may lead to improvements in those operations. And I expect that there will be legislation that comes out of that as well. So I'm guessing there will be similar themes to the bill last year as we continue conversations, but that those will be broken up into bite sized pieces, so we can tackle those one one by one.
Great. Well, thank you so much for being with us today. Representative on we really appreciate you stopping by for the podcast.
Yeah. Thanks so much for your focus on this issue. I'm really excited to be here and thanks for the for your time.