Penalties and fines need to be stiffer for those violating Kansas water law, stakeholders told Kansas officials over the past two years.

And state officials are answering – releasing a draft proposal that steps up fines.

It's just one of four proposed changes state water officials plan to present to the Governor's Office by Feb. 1. The plan came out of 500 water meetings and 15,000 comments – all part of Gov. Sam Brownback's effort to develop ideas to preserve and extend the state's water resources. 

The four changes are: 

  • Limiting the movement of a point of diversion
  • Civil and other penalties for overpumping and other violations of the Kansas Water Appropriation Act
  • Civil and other penalties for failure to submit a water use report
  • Authority to seal meters

"We went through the water vision process and started getting feedback," said Lane Letourneau, water appropriations program manager for the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources. 

Stiff penalties 

That included users telling Letourneau and other water officials the state needed to ramp up penalties. For instance, current law allows water users a "warning," where the state issues the violator a notice of their first offense. 

Some, however, looked at it as a free year to overpump.

"We established a culture where people could really take advantage of the resource," he said. "A lot of people thought the notice of noncompliance was their free year to overpump – but it is really there for an honest mistake."

There is no longer a "free year" under the new proposed rules. The proposal is listed in a matrix of categories and levels. A first-time offender who overpumps less than 24 hours receives a warning, but anything over 24 hours has monetary penalties.

For instance, those overpumping more than 72 hours would see a fine of $1,000 a day and a reduction in water use equal to three times the quantity overpumped – not to exceed a year suspension.

Meanwhile, a violation would not stick to a water right forever, like current rules. Instead, the slate would be wiped clean after five years with no penalties.

There are also proposed fines for failure to provide water use information, unauthorized diversions, failure to install a flowmeter, tampering with a meter and falsifying a water use report.

Limit point of diversion

The proposal also gives the state's Division of Water Resources and Groundwater Management Districts the authority to seal meters to the pipe to protect the integrity of the water use record. 

State officials are also looking at limiting the point of diversion for water to help extend the state's water supply. At present, following certain rules, a water user can move a water well up to a half mile from the previous location. 

For instance, Letourneau said, "We don’t want wells that have dewatered their area and now out of water to move into a good neighborhood and start drying up the neighbor's well. We heard in our vision meetings that people don’t want folks chasing water."

The limitation would apply to:

  • The Ogallala-High Plains Aquifer
  • Areas that have been depleted by 20 percent or more since 1950
  • Areas with a saturated thickness less than 40 feet
  • An alluvial aquifer subject to an IGUCA order at the discretion of the chief engineer

There are exceptions, which would allow a water user to move their well up to a quarter of a mile away. That includes if an applicant can demonstrate moving the well only affects their own wells or if the applicants can improve spacing by moving out of a bad area. Projected saturated thickness at the proposed well location also must be greater than 40 feet after 50 years.

The ag department will provide the tools necessary for the applicants to supply the information needed to meet this demonstration, Letourneau said.

Also, a water user can move a well 300 feet or less and not be required to meet the demonstration. Letourneau said science shows there is very little difference in pumping impacts when a well is moved up to 300 feet.

Districts weigh in 

Letourneau said they have generally had positive support on the concept, although some water boards have suggested making the fines not as complicated. 

Mark Rude, manager of Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3, said while overpumping and violations are "not a big of issue volumetrically," such actions are a concern. 

His board has long had a stance that fines and penalties for overpumping need to be stronger, he said. His board has discussed whether it is more appropriate to build a fine matrix around quantities or, as the proposal suggests, time.

He also added the board is concerned that the point of diversion limits would trump local management programs already in those areas. He said his board questioned whether such rules would be consistent with the Groundwater Management District Act.

Tim Boese, manager of the Equus Beds GMD No. 2, said his board has similar concerns regarding well spacing.

"It goes back to local control," he said. "We want to be the decision-makers."

For instance, he said, his district already is working on similar rules in one problem area around Pretty Prairie where the water table is declining. 

"We wanted to be able to have that same local input in our district. ... We don't want the state to determine where it is necessary; we don't want to unduly restrict movement. We don't want to have the state mandate where that is needed."

On fines, he said GMD 2 is supportive of stricter fines but wants the matrix to be not as complicated. They also generally support something stronger than current law, but maybe not as extensive as the one being proposed.

He noted that by the end of the year, all of his district should have water meters installed, along with users across most of the state. There are plenty of tools for irrigators so they won't overpump. 

As for tampering with meters or falsifying water use reports, Boese said such actions are done by just a small percentage of water users.

"We want to make sure the fine and penalty are appropriate for those who do that and not go after the 99 percent who are doing it right."

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Kansas Agland Editor Amy Bickel's agriculture roots started in Gypsum. She has been covering Kansas agriculture for more than 15 years. Email her with news, photos and other information at abickel@hutchnews.com or by calling (800) 766-3311 Ext. 320.

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