As Drought Lingers, States Examine Water Policies

  • March 02, 2012
  • By Jim Malewitz

Governor Sam Brownback hasn't found it easy to sell his sweeping agenda to Kansas lawmakers. Nearly two months into the legislative session, many of them have resisted the Republican governor's proposed overhauls to Medicaid, the tax code and school financing.

But on one front, there's a bipartisan consensus. Following a year of record drought that destroyed close to $2 billion in Kansas crops, Brownback's plan to conserve the state's dwindling water supply is moving quickly through the legislature.

Two bills have already passed in both chambers — unanimously. One is an amendment to the state's so-called "use it or lose it" water law, unchanged since 1945, which can take water rights away from those who have not used them for long periods. Some officials say this encourages overconsumption. The other bill would give farmers more flexibility in their water use. Still other bills may soon reach the governor's desk, including ones that would allow the state to create more water banks and promote local planning

"It is way past time we move from a development policy with our water to a conservation ethic," Brownback said in January during his state of the state address. "We have no future without water."

Kansas isn't the only state closely reexamining its water policies. Major changes may be on deck for Oklahoma, Kansas' neighbor to the south, where last year's drought brought similar losses in agriculture. And though the Texas legislature does not convene this year, followers of the issue predict a flurry of water-related proposals when lawmakers return to Austin in 2013 if that state's record drought still lingers, as it does now in some regions.

Policymakers in a number of states are thinking more critically about water conservation, especially as climate change and increased development erode the supply. And though water squabbles in and between states still often prove contentious, broad conservation efforts and planning have gained steam as lawmakers contemplate future days gone dry.

Drought-driven planning

Fewer than half of the states have comprehensive water management plans, and several that do haven't updated their plans for decades. It took drought-prone Georgia until 2008 to develop a statewide plan of any kind.

For a long time, water planning in Texas was outdated, but a series of major droughts in the 1980s and 1990s brought monumental changes to water management. It was a 1996 drought that prompted a shift to regional planning, and amid another dry spell in 1999, the state developed its first wide-ranging drought response plan.

"In the 1980s, people would say, 'why do we need a plan?'" says Tony Willardson, executive director of the Western States Water Council. But those sentiments are changing in some states — especially in the Southwest. That's the case in Texas, which now has one of the most thorough plans in the country, updated every five years.

Though the 2011 drought has extracted a heavy toll on Texas — including more than $5 billion in lost crops and cattle — the effects would have been worse without extensive state planning, experts say.

Still, Texas will face major water management issues in the coming years. The most recent water plan estimates the state will lose 10 percent of its reserves over the next 50 years. In that same period, the state's population is expected to grow by 80 percent.

Luckily, demand for water in 2010 fell below projections made in 2007 — largely because lawmakers followed recommendations set forth in the previous plan. The legislature provided close to $1.5 billion for recommended conservation projects.

But much remains to be done. Ronald Kaiser, chair of the Texas A&M University Water Program, says the biggest water savings come from local conservation — particularly restrictions on outside watering. However, during the 2011 drought fewer than 1,000 of Texas' 4,700 public water systems imposed conservation regulations, while just 55 banned all outside watering.

A decision by the Texas Supreme Court could complicate some conservation efforts. The court ruled last week that property owners have vested rights to groundwater beneath their lands, and landowners may be compensated for restrictions on its use. 

Oklahoma's 50-year plan

In Oklahoma, legislators are also turning attention to water. House Speaker Kris Steele is spearheading efforts to enact several recommendations made under the state's 50-year water plan, released earlier this year.

At a time when the state projects a 33 percent leap in demand for water during the next 50 years, Steele and his colleagues are hoping to keep consumption steady. Their proposals would create regional water groups and improve usage monitoring while funding $86 billion in infrastructure improvements over several decades. Steele says he's optimistic about the plan's chances in the legislature. But passage won't be easy. Several powerful business groups oppose the limits.

"Oklahoma is blessed with wonderful resources, including water. We are not running out," said Mike Terry, president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, in a statement last month. "Efforts to curtail or limit water access to water users in the state, including the oil and natural gas industry, hampers the growth of Oklahoma businesses."

A dispute between the state and the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations may further complicate water planning. The tribes have filed suit in federal court, seeking to prevent Oklahoma from piping their water to Oklahoma City. The tribes claim sole jurisdiction over the water.

Steele says the suit shouldn't halt progress on water policy, much of which is not related to the case. And he insists that conserving water would not impede development. Planning would benefit long-term growth, he says, by preventing disaster down the road.

Regional cooperation

That's how the Kansas governor has pitched his water agenda to the legislature.

"Kansas legislators understand the important role water plays in our state's economic future," says Sherriene Jones-Sontag, Brownback's spokesperson. "Without water, agriculture and all of its related businesses could not be sustained, manufacturing could not continue, recreational opportunities would diminish and the towns in the area would cease to exist."

The proposals have received broad support from farmers, ranchers and environmentalists in Kansas. "These are all good steps," says Marios Sophocleous, a senior scientist with the Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. "The only question is, is this enough?"

Sophocleous suggests interstate planning would help High Plains states better preserve shared resources like the Ogallala Aquifer, which flows beneath eight states and slakes the thirst of Western Kansas. Willardson says states need more help from the federal government. The Western States Water Council has long called for a national policy that would improve forecasting, planning and drought response. In 2005, Congress delivered on part of the request, establishing an early warning system. But critics say it's not enough.

"We're not asking them to tell us what to do," Willardson says. "We just want more information and data."

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