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Farm groups stymie reorganization of Kansas water programs

March 1, 2022 GMT
Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, presides as chair over a meeting of the Kansas House Water Committee, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Highland advocates a reorganization of state water programs now overseen by 16 agencies under a single department but agriculture groups have blocked it.(AP Photo/John Hanna)
Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, presides as chair over a meeting of the Kansas House Water Committee, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Highland advocates a reorganization of state water programs now overseen by 16 agencies under a single department but agriculture groups have blocked it.(AP Photo/John Hanna)
Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, presides as chair over a meeting of the Kansas House Water Committee, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Highland advocates a reorganization of state water programs now overseen by 16 agencies under a single department but agriculture groups have blocked it.(AP Photo/John Hanna)
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Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, presides as chair over a meeting of the Kansas House Water Committee, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Highland advocates a reorganization of state water programs now overseen by 16 agencies under a single department but agriculture groups have blocked it.(AP Photo/John Hanna)
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Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, presides as chair over a meeting of the Kansas House Water Committee, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Highland advocates a reorganization of state water programs now overseen by 16 agencies under a single department but agriculture groups have blocked it.(AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Powerful Kansas agriculture groups on Tuesday blocked a bipartisan proposal to tie a big increase in funding for water conservation programs to a reorganization of state and local agencies that regulate water use.

The House Water Committee considered changes that would have made the official who issues permits for water use independent of the state Department of Agriculture and reduced the power of major irrigators in local groundwater management districts. The 283-page measure would have consolidated water programs under a new state water department.

But the committee instead approved a narrower proposal to set aside an additional $49 million a year for water projects and require more reporting by local water districts. It dropped the reorganization proposals.

The stripped-down measure goes next to the full House for debate. Water Committee Chair Ron Highland said he doesn’t know whether the reorganization proposal will be revived.

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“We got railroaded by the agriculture group,” said Highland, a Wamego Republican. “The ag community in general — they put up a full force against the bill. They don’t want any reorganization.”

Environmentalists and other supporters of the larger measure argued that state oversight is too fragmented — and not isolated enough from politics — for efficient conservation efforts.

Opponents included the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Livestock Association, long influential with rural lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Their lobbyists said it wasn’t clear how consolidating programs under a single agency would improve conservation or the oversight of water use.

“We’re shuffling the deck, but we don’t know what the end result that we’re trying to gain is, and that’s what needs to be fleshed out,” said Farm Bureau lobbyist John Donley.

Donley added that boosting funding achieves a goal of backers of a bigger bill: “We just all of a sudden raised the profile of water.”

Some of Highland’s fellow conservatives also saw the funding boost as the most important initiative.

“I don’t think the expansion of government and having more government is the answer,” said conservative Republican Rep. Trevor Jacobs, of Fort Scott.

Kansas in 1989 committed to spending $8 million a year on water projects, but it has reneged on that for the past 16 years. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has included the full $8 million in her proposed budget, but many lawmakers and groups believe that’s short of what’s needed.

Officials have been concerned for years about the depletion of the giant Ogallala Aquifer, and Highland and others say local water districts have been unable to slow it enough. Also, a decadeslong buildup of sediment threatens reservoirs, and environmentalists argue that climate change also endangers water supplies.

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Kelly’s administration took no official position on the proposed reorganization, which would have created a new Cabinet-level agency. The state now has 16 agencies with some oversight of water.

With the narrower bill, Rep. Cyndi Howerton, a Wichita Republican, asked, “Who is the voice of water now?”

In the audience, Highland’s wife, Linda, said quietly, “No one.”

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna