After nearly three years of work, the draft master order for the R9 Ranch change applications by the cities of Hays and Russell has been prepared and distributed for public review on the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources website.
“It’s a little bit anti-climactic. I’ve read through this application about 800 times,” joked Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty. “I think this the first time I’ve read through it without there being red lines and about 1,000 comments in the document,” he said with a wry smile.
The cities purchased the Edwards County R9 Ranch and its water rights in 1995 with the expectation of development as a long-term water supply for Hays and Russell. Russell owns 18 percent; Hays owns the remainder.
The ranch is within the boundaries of Groundwater Management District (GMD) No. 5.
Both cities have reached the effective limits of water conservation with low water use programs. Hays residents use an average 92 gallons of water per person per day. Statewide, the average is 130 gallons per person per day. In 2013, Russell’s total water consumption dropped by 22 percent over the previous five years.
According to Dougherty, “Hays officials have spent 60 years exploring many options for a long-term water supply, including Kanopolis, Wilson and Cedar Bluff reservoirs. Nothing has been found that is more viable, affordable and achievable than the R9.”
In June 2015, Hays and Russell submitted applications to KDA-DWR to change the water use from agricultural irrigation to municipal.
The proposed changes will move more than 2,000 acre-feet of water per year in excess of 35 miles. That will trigger the state’s Water Transfer Act, which has never been invoked. The change application must be completed and approved before the transfer can begin.
“In my estimation, we are on the downhill side of this process,” Dougherty said.
Still, it will be a lengthy process, he added, “because of the complexity of what we’re asking for.” There are 60 original or amended change applications listed on the DWR website.
There are more than 60 water rights on the R9 and about 40 points of diversion where the water is being pulled out of the ground, which will be combined into 12 municipal wells. The ranch’s irrigation water was previously was categorized as “non-consumptive use,” with some of the water percolating back down through the sandy soil into the Arkansas River basin. It will change to “consumptive use” as a municipal water supply with no water going into the alluvial aquifer. Instead, it will be piped approximately 67 miles north into the Smoky Hill River Basin at Schoenchen, then to Hays and Russell.
The ranch gets about 22 inches of rain annually and the water is naturally sustainable, Dougherty explained. Hays and Russell own 7,647 acre feet of irrigation water rights and have voluntarily agreed to an annual municipal sustainable yield of 4,800 acre feet. Extensive modeling by Burns and McDonnell engineers show the ranch water will be just as viable in year 50 as it is on day one.
The agricultural irrigation water wells have been shut down and the land converted to native grass with a Walk In Hunting Area planned by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
The master order contingently approving change applications for the R9 water rights by DWR/KDA chief engineer David Barfield had to conform to state laws, groundwater management district regulations, and DWR regulations. Many of these rules were written for small, singular occurrences.
“We are transcending water basins, we are transcending boundaries, and we are transcending scale that a lot of the regulations and state laws are written for,” Dougherty said.
The draft proposed master order and exhibits were transmitted to GMD No. 5 for its review this month, along with the change applications and amendments.
The next step in the process is for the chief engineer to hold a public meeting for input and comment, including that from board members of GMD No. 5, as required by state statute and DWR regulations.
That will culminate in “draft” being removed from the order and it will be deemed complete. Then it’s on to the water transfer process, also spelled out by state statutes.
“The Water Transfer Act hasn’t been enacted since it was significantly modified back in the 1990s to create the process that we’re about to go through,” Dougherty noted, “so we don’t have any past history or previous cases to look at.”
He described the process as “very simplistic in nature” with a three-person panel to be convened. It will consist of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary or the KDHE Director of the Division of Environment, the head of the Kansas Water Office, and the chief engineer of the KDA/DWR.
The panel is ultimately tasked with a thumbs up or thumbs down decision on the water transfer after more public hearings are held.
“In essence, according to state statue, what the three-person panel is trying to determine is if allowing the water transfer is a greater benefit to the state of Kansas than by not allowing the transfer.”
Dougherty said it comes down to economics.
“The Hays/Russell region represents a $2 billion/year gross economy, and it’s growing,” he said.
Part of the cities’ submissions for the water transfer application included a financial study from the Fort Hays State University Docking Institute of Public Affairs.
“There are no indications the economy would slow down unless something major happens, and one major thing would be lack of available water,” Dougherty said.
“Our argument is the R9 Ranch is being set up as a regional long-term water supply. It isn’t just Hays and Russell. It would include Ellis, Victoria, Trego County Rural Water District No. 2 and Ellis County 1C Rural Water District,” he added. “There are lots of people and entities around here that can benefit from the utilization of this water. We’re all tied together economically, and it’s a solid economy.”
Hays voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 1998 dedicated to financing the $80 million project.