Kansas is running dry. Farmers have been pumping the High Plains Aquifer, a massive multi state underground water source that spans the Great Plains to irrigate corn and other crops for decades. Now, some parts of the aquifer including the Ogallala are running out. Kansas officials are searching for solutions to the crisis and accountability from local groundwater managers. And earlier this fall, Governor Laura Kelly hired a special advisor on water. My name is Alison kite, and I'm a reporter for the Kansas reflector. This is the Kansas reflector Podcast. Today we're joined by Governor Kelly's new Special Adviser on water. BJ Ramaswamy. Vijay, thank you so much for joining us. I'm
so excited to be here. Thank you.
So you are Governor Laura, Kelly's new Special Adviser on water issues. I wanted to give people an introduction to kind of your background and previous work with her office before we jump in to some of the issues facing us today when it comes to water. So can you tell me a little bit about your education and previous work? Absolutely.
So I think the most important thing is I'm a Kansan first, you know, my family made Kansas home in the early 2000s, from India. So I was born in India. And so, you know, I grew up here, I went to public school here. And after college, I did public health related work. And after college, I came back and really wanted to focus my work on the state that I grew up in. You know, it's been an incredible privilege to grow up here. And I want to do everything I can committed to public service, to make the state as incredible and continue to be incredible as this the state that I grew up in. And so when I came back to work, the administration, I worked on a couple of different issues. I worked on energy issues, I worked on environment issues, I worked on budget issues, education, and I did a lot of the work during the pandemic. And during that work, I really got to know the people, right, I got to know the ways in which the Kansas legislature works, the relationships, the incredible work that's happening in the state, and really caught the Kansas book. And so after a few years in the administration, I went to Oxford, I got two degrees in public policy. And the first thing that I wanted to do was come back. And when I talked to the governor about coming back and staying committed to public service in Kansas, one of the things that, you know, was really on my mind was, what are the issues that are important, the future of the state? And how can I be a part of that solution. And what the governor was talking about was when she was doing her tours, across the state of Kansas, the thing that came up over and over and over again, was water, it's central to our communities. It's central economic development, it's central to our economy. And it's central to our future as Kansas. And so, you know, what she said to me is, we've got a lot of water agencies. And we've got a lot of water experts in the state, but we need somebody to help coordinate all of that. But we need somebody to come in and say, you know, we've got all of this work, we've got great data, we've got great momentum, how can we create a good strategic plan moving forward. And so that's really been the focus for me, I think, in the first, you know, few weeks of this job, coming into it with a lot of humility, coming into a lot of empathy. You know, water is very emotional issue. And I'm really, really excited about the momentum that we have.
Terrific. And was water something that you focused on at all previously in the governor's office? Or in your studies at Oxford? Or is this a new issue for you?
Yeah, so I focused on a lot of environmental issues and energy issues kind of generally. And they've always sort of come back to water. And I think, you know, when I talked about, you know, economic development issues, or community development issues when I was here, before water came up constantly. And so as I think about, you know, the future of this job, sure, there's going to be a lot of learning. And I'm doing that on a day to day basis. But I've got a lot of incredible experts that I can talk to you in the state, you know, we've got a lot of incredible work happening. And I see this role as being a manager. And I know that some that I can do with that humility and empathy. And I'm, you know, I'm excited to continue this work.
And how would you describe this special advisor role to folks who aren't familiar with what that looks like,
of course, and so I think one of the things that the governor always talks about is that, you know, funding is important, legislative momentum is important, but you have to dedicate staff resources to an issue if you want to get something done in government. And I think what she, what she was thinking about with this position is that she wants somebody that's central within the office at a high level that's thinking about water on a consistent basis, that's bringing water to every conversation that we have in government on a consistent basis. So we have economic development conversations, we're thinking about water, when we're having policy conversations or legislative conversations, we're thinking about water, when we're thinking about, you know, agricultural conversations, we're thinking about water. And so my job is to make water central to a lot of our conversations, but also from a, you know, advising perspective to say, here's some, you know, policies that we can put forward here are ways that we can bring our agencies together around central goals. The other thing that's really important to the governor is we've got money that we haven't had in a really long time. You know, we've got a lot of plans in the state. You know, we've had a lot of conversations, but what we've been missing is money and I think the guy Governor is actually the first one since you know 2008 to actually fund the water plan for the first time, the legislature came together with a whole host of partners and the governor to put in $35 million over the next five years. And so from the Governor's perspective, it's I wanted to put somebody in place that can help figure out how can we invest this money in the smartest way and work with our agencies and our partners and the Kansas water authority to do so. And a part of that is also you know, you've been hearing a lot about federal funding with the infrastructure bills. And you know, Kansas ranks 50th in the country and in bringing down federal funding, and that's one of the governor's key priorities. And I'm really here to figure out how do we get all of our agencies together, draw down as much federal funding as possible, and really invest that money to for the future of the state in terms of water?
Do you have a particular goal that you would say is your biggest goal or your first goal that you you'd like to accomplish in this position? Yeah,
so I think there's there's three kinds of work streams that I'm thinking about, at least at least initially. And maybe that's helpful to identify, right, the governor's overall vision is, you know, a safe and sustainable water supply for Kansas for generations to come. And I think we can do that. The three things that I'm focused on are first, we've got a lot of agencies that work on water, my goal is to manage and coordinate and figure out what are our cross agency goals? How can we, you know, include water and all of our conversations around community and economic development? And how can we pull in federal funding? That's one stream. The second, the second thing is we've got money, like I mentioned, but we got to figure out how to use it. And I think we have great models, the currently with the Kansas Water Authority have ways to actually engage local folks regionally to say, what are your water priorities as a region and as localities? How can we invest our funding? And what additional funding do you need? And for me, it's taking that central, you know, purpose and saying, you know, we've got good examples in k dot, for example, with local consulate, the way that they go into communities and really listen to understand priorities, how can we bring that to water? How can we create smart strategic funding plans for the next 1020 30 years, on all of our water quantity and quality issues? The third kind of you know, the stream of work or focus for me in this job is we've got a really interesting and great framework with House Bill 2279, the groundwater management district reform bill that says, how do we as a state come in and establish an accountable framework for addressing our water quality and quantity goals. And so what that bill says is, to our groundwater management districts, identify priority areas of concern by 2024. And by 2026, come up with a strategic actionable plan to address those priority areas of concern, where I see our role is how do we accelerate that progress? So how do we, you know, I'm doing a tour of all the GMDs here in a couple of weeks. And so my main question is, what are the barriers? And how can we help address those? If it's technology, we can bring in funding to help address those technology concerns? If it's technical assistance, we can help do those things. If it's, you know, specific market pressures, how do we, you know, organize the industry from a specific and agricultural perspective? You know, how do we bring our ag financers? Together? You know, how do we engage with the federal government on crop insurance? You know, how do we bring our, you know, feedlots and big meat packers together to really understand and, and accelerate progress? Those are the types of things that I'm thinking about how do we accelerate progress? And really make sure that when we have those plans in 2026, we've got great progress and momentum. But how do we play that role as our state as the governor's office in really empowering those, you know, local solutions for this problem? The one other thing that I'll say, I think that's really important to me from a vision perspective. And I think the governor says this over and over and over again, it's really important is that water is not just an agricultural issue, it's not just about producers. It's it's about everybody, right. And in order to solve this problem, we have to look at this holistically. Water is critical to our future generations, if we want our kids to continue to farm the land, if we want our kids to stay in the state moving forward, if we want our communities to thrive across the state, everybody needs to be at the table. That means agriculture, that means our municipal water providers, that means our local communities, from our schools, to our city managers, that means just everyday Kansans need to be engaged and connected and listen to on their water priorities. And we need to come to a consensus about what we want to do in the state and actionable plans and how to get there.
You mentioned the numerous agencies that have some piece of the water issue in Kansas, the in the session of 2022, there was an effort to kind of bring all of those agencies under a cabinet level Secretary on water, which did not succeed in passing the legislature. Is that something that that the governor's office would like to revisit?
So one of the things that the governor has said on this issue is that she's not going to wait, right? I think, you know, those legislative conversations can happen and we're really excited to you know, be a part of those legislate Have conversations but we're not going to wait on this issue, what we can do and what the governor can do. And she said over and over over again, is that this as the CEO of the state, she can bring those agencies together and start that work. And that can be a model for what it looks like to cooperate across agencies on water related issues, right. And so that's a part of my job is to bring all of those agencies together, from agriculture, to our water office to kth II to our Division of Water Resources within agriculture, and really say, what are those cross agency goals? What are some actual projects that we can work on? We have all of these programs related to water across these agencies? How can we align those programs towards specific goals? And that improve service delivery to right, you know, if I'm, if I'm a producer, applying for grants, it really doesn't benefit me if there's grants in three different departments. And so those are the things that I'm thinking about, how do we make it easier for Kansans to access government? And how do we create a coordinated structure within government, the important thing that I'll say is that a lot of that work is already happening. And my job is to to empower that, right. You know, we've got our water office and our candidates Water Authority, and our kth G and our Division of Water Resources already working together on a day to day basis. They work with our incredible data folks at the Kansas Geological Survey on some of the best water quality and quantity data in the world. And so I My goal is to say how do we create formal structures for that, and you know, those agency conversations that can happen, and we're excited to be a part of those, but we can do the work now. And I think that'll go a long way to really inform what it means to centralize water as a key part of our state's issues, not only now, but in the future.
Obviously, one of the biggest water issues that we have here in Kansas is the state of the Ogallala, or High Plains Aquifer. You know, what have you seen in your first few weeks in this job? Or has the governor of Governor's office seen in terms of the severity of the situation when it comes to the aquifer?
Of course, it isn't a really serious situation. Right. And I think that people understand that, you know, there was a great study done by Kansas State University that really showed that 90% of producers already know and understand that the concerns related to Oglala and want to do something about it. Right. And the question is how, and I think the two things that I really think about in terms of Oglala are one is that we've got a lot of incredible progress in data and understanding of the tools that are unnecessary, and we can really address the solution. What I mean by that is that there's really good examples that show that there's sometimes a false choice between, you know, reducing the amount of water we have, and economic growth, that's a false choice. We've got great data, especially in places like Sheridan County, that show that, you know, when they came together and put together what's called a local enhance management area where a bunch of producers and feedlots and communities come together and really come up with a strong voluntary plan for water reduction, they saved water by up to 40%, while actually saving money and meeting their production goals. That's the type of story that we need to tell, you've got water conservation areas, which are more localized ways that producers can address their water quantity needs. And you've got examples of that in places like Garden City with the Garden City company where they show, you know, up to 20% reductions in water. And so I think that we have to build on those efforts and say, we've got the tools, we know that certain types of technologies can be helpful. We know that certain types of you know, frameworks, like local enhanced management area can be helpful. And we know that, you know, if we can help address those barriers that people understand there's a problem, and there's strong momentum to get there. The second thing that I think about when I think about Ogallala, is that I think about the real market, you know, pressures and demands that are there, they're kind of driving the problem in the first place. Right? You know, if I'm a producer of kind of meet my mortgage, right, and I know how much water it takes to meet that mortgage this year. And so these are difficult conversations to have. But I think you've got a lot of producers and agricultural perspective that are already having those conversations. And so from my perspective, it's to say, how can we reduce barriers? How can we engage with industries? And how can we, you know, across the entire agricultural industry, which is the major use of water and say, How can we drive some strong voluntary and really intentional efforts around around addressing the issues with the Ogallala the things that I'm really encouraged by are, you know, in 2022, the Kansas Water Authority came together in their Oglala committee and actually ended this sort of de facto policy of, of plan depletion, though, that's really exciting. I think, you know, you've got more conversations than ever with Hallsville 2279, about how to establish a large scale framework. We've got real challenges. And I think now is the time and I think we're ready to meet the moment on how to address the problems in Oglala
when you say, producers know how much you know, what are they need to use to meet their mortgage? Can you explain what that means?
Sure. So what I mean by that is that you know, These decisions around, you know, irrigation are primarily driven by demand. Right? You know, especially in South southwestern Kansas, you know, catalyst can't, right. And so one of the things, you've got 3 million people in the state in the 6 million heads of cattle, and so one of the drivers is that you need to feed the cattle. And so, you know, that drives, you know, demand to plant certain crops, like corn, for example, that are that are irrigated. And so those are the types of things that I'm talking about. I'm saying, what are the market pressures that are there? And how can we, you know, take all of those different market pressures, all of those different? Very real, you know, pressures that people have to deal with? And say, what are the barriers to water conservation? How can we tell the right stories around water conservation and show that it can happen across the state while saving folks money, and I think, address the real fear that, you know, if I have to, you know, reduce the amount of water that I'm not gonna make the same amount of money next year, that I'm not going to be able to make the same amount of production next year. And I think we have good examples to show that, you know, that we can address water supply, while also saving money, while also meeting our production goals. And those are the types of conversations that we can have. And those things happen best when they're producer to producer, right? When they're from the industry itself, when they are, Hey, these are the best management practices that I used. And we're really building a culture of conservation around the state. And I think that's already happening in many areas. And I'm, you know, very much excited to move forward. The other piece of that, I think that's quite important. And I think this is where, you know, those local enhancement, urgent areas come in, and, you know, really creating the frameworks for action come in, is that one of the issues that I hear about over and over again, is competition, right, it's really difficult for me to reduce the amount of water if I don't see my neighbor, reducing the amount of water, because, you know, we do live in an agricultural market. And so I think we've got good examples across the state of how, you know, we've got people across, not just the agricultural industry, but you know, you know, across across industries coming together and saying, if we address this problem collectively, and we really figure out from a, you know, regional perspective, or county perspective, how to address our some of our water concerns, we can do that together. And that benefits everybody. So, you know, if we have a drought in the future, we've got more water to address that drought, right. You know, if I'm, you know, turning over my farm to my kids and my grandkids, they can continue to farm the land. Those are the types of messages that I think are really helpful. And I'm excited to, to learn more about and really understand, as I, you know, do these tours that I talked to people how we can be a part of that part of that solution.
We've known for a long time as a state that the Ogallala is in decline, that the water won't last forever. How would you say we got to this point where we are addressing the situation, when we're in with our backs to the wall as it were? Sure. I
think one of the things that I, you know, I think about is that, you know, when we, when we first started, and we passed, you know, the Kansas water Appropriation Act, one of the things that we said is that water is going to be put to beneficial use, right. And so, in a lot of parts of the state water has been critical to economic growth, it has been critical to our agricultural industry, it has been critical to communities moving forward. And, you know, of the decisions that have made in the past, I think I look at them with a lot of empathy and tried to try to understand why they happened. And one of the things that, you know, I can see is that we didn't have the data that we have now, right, we didn't really know how much water was, you know, in the ground, and sort of the long term effects of of pumping and those sorts of things. But, you know, there's a lot of hope, because we do have that data. Now, we do have that understanding now. And I think, given you know, all the things that have in the past, and it's important to understand and analyze why those things have happened, how we've gotten here, I think it's important to know that the shift isn't happening today, you know, conversations about water conservation, and addressing the Ogallala have been happening for decades, and people have been taking action for decades, what we have now is a confluence of a lot of different factors, we've got got the governor being very clear about this being a priority, we've got the legislature making it a clear priority, we've got funding to address it, we've got federal funding that can come in. And we've got really good data and examples across the state of how, like I mentioned before, we have the tools to address this problem. And so I look at it as you know, I understand the reasons in which, you know, we're here where we are, we're not the only ones, you've got states around the country that are dealing with this, and you have countries around the world that are dealing with this. It's a consequence of development. But out of that development, we've learned some really good lessons. And I think what we can do now is to say we because we have technology because we have funding because we have momentum because we have good data, we can now start incorporating water planning more intentionally across the state and a wide array of industries and really set some good goals and really empower some of that You know, local progress. And so I remain quite hopeful about the ways that we as Kansas can be even a model for the rest of the country on this issue.
And groundwater management districts, there are five in Kansas, they've had the authority to deal with groundwater conservation since the 70s. Do you think that there's more of a role that the state should be taking on this issue that's kind of largely been left to these more local entities? Sure.
And I think that I think that, you know, house will turn into something that I mentioned earlier, I think is a good example of the role that the state can provide, right, it sets the framework for action, and sets the framework for transparency and for accountability. And I think that's the type of partnership that's necessary, right? A strict top down approach is not going to create a culture of conservation is not going to create, you know, a long term sustainable strategy to address this problem, what is going to do so is to have an understanding that the land is different across the state, the needs are different across the state. And so you know, we have collective goals, we have, you know, ways to address this solution, but a top down approach isn't going to solve the problem. What we need is a specific framework, like I mentioned, of addressing those priority areas, and coming up with plans and the state coming in and saying, you know, we're going to be firm about that accountable framework, but we have a role to play in really supporting that, you know, whether it be through money, whether it be through technical assistance, whether it be through just partnership, and education across the state, and you know, helping folks learn from each other about what's happening, you know, in GMT three versus in GMT four, and that those are the types of things that I think can be, can be really helpful. And I'm encouraged, right, you know, you just saw GMT one come together, and put together a Lima, right, the local enhanced management area. And I think those things are iterative. And I that's what I think is really, really important to me that for folks to understand is that all of this progress is iterative. You know, when you have a specific challenge, like water, which requires so much change, and it's such an emotional issue, you have to create good partnerships at the local level, to try to address the problem. And every step that we take forward, you know, the 10 to 15% reductions that we see in groundwater management, District One, the incredible progress we saw in Sheridan County, the water conservation areas that we see across the state, and specifically, you know, in GMD, three, those are the ways in which, you know, producer to producer community to community, we have conversations about water, we have hope about water, and we have a good understanding of the tools that that we have already have to solve the problem. And so as I look, as I look to it, you know, I think, like I mentioned before, I think the conversation has always kind of focused on one specific issue or one specific industry. And I think that's changing. And I'm really excited about that. Because I think from a groundwater from a groundwater management district, you're really going to start to see these conversations become how do we make this a way for all of our communities to thrive in our neighborhoods as Dr. Moving forward? And how do we make sure water is central to that? Right.
Well, Vijay, I really appreciate you talking with us about water in Kansas, are there any other issues that you think people need to be aware of before we sign off?
Yeah, I mean, I think that one of the things that I always say to folks is that, you know, ways that you know, everybody that's listening can get involved is figure out where your water comes from, you know, we kind of turn on the tap every day, and we don't necessarily think about where it comes from. And so, you know, if you're living in Topeka, you think about the Kansas River, if you're, you know, if you're living in, you know, western Kansas, you're mainly thinking about, you know, Oglala and High Plains Aquifer more generally. But I would probably, you know, implore everybody to take a second, you know, probably in the next week to figure out where your water comes from, and also to figure out what are the challenges in your community? Right, you know, are there specific water quality challenges in the community that, you know, folks are addressing or their quantity challenges, and my real push is for everybody to be engaged in this issue. And I think you're seeing that across the state. But I think the more and more that, you know, we make water a conversation for everybody, we all succeed. And I really, really think it's important to me, for everybody knows that, you know, as a state, we're really ready to meet this moment. And you know, that you've got your legislators, your governor, you've got stakeholders really committed. And, you know, this is the time for Kansas to be the model for the rest of the country on this issue.