Gov. Laura Kelly said she has ‘political capital’ to spend on water issues this year

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Gov. Laura Kelly said she is planning to spend a significant amount of political capital on water during the upcoming legislative session.

The aquifers under several western Kansas towns are depleted beyond the minimum threshold for aquifer density, meaning what remains couldn’t support things like center-pivot irrigation. Other areas are luckier, with an estimated 25 to 100 years of water use.

Still, those areas need to change water use to be able to support agriculture long term. Kelly said since the water shortages reached crisis levels, there hasn’t been a politician in the unique position she’s in as a second-term governor who isn’t planning to run for higher office again.

“I decided that, should I be reelected, that I would elevate water to be one of my highest priorities because it’s sort of an interesting moment in time and one that we’ve never experienced, where you have a governor in their second term, who never plans to do anything else, never be on the ballot again,” Kelly told The Capital-Journal. “So, I’ve got political capital and I can afford to spend it because it’ll be a very political sensitive issue.”

Kelly said the issue became a top priority while campaigning in western Kansas. It didn’t take long for residents to bring up water.

“It didn’t matter if it was northwestern or southwestern. Even though I thought they were going to be talking about schools and roads and health care, it always went to water almost immediately everywhere,” Kelly said.

In November, Kelly created a subcabinet on water that will attempt to formalize systems of cross-agency coordination and planning on the sometimes byzantine approach to water management. Kelly hopes agency and an influx of federal cash could move the needle on water in the coming year.

“We’ve got money — which is another thing that we really have not had in the amount that you need to even begin to approach this — but because of all of the funding that came in, during the pandemic, and some of the funding that’s coming in now, through the various infrastructure, programs that have been passed in Congress, we have we have some resources that we can spend,” Kelly said.

Money can only go so far, though, and some change will be needed by agricultural producers to conserve water to the point of sustainability. In December, Kelly’s special adviser on water touted Local Enhanced Management Areas, which is a voluntary association between landowners to meet specific conservation goals.

Some LEMAs saved 30% of their water without losing production.

“I think there is more recognition on the part of water users with particularly our producers,” Kelly said. “All the stars are aligning at this point. If ever we can come up with a plan and implement, it’s now.”

As reported in the Topeka Capital Journal

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