'Zero Depletion' Stirs Intense Debate Over Water Conservation

March 2, 2001

The concept, "zero depletion," is simple enough to explain, and the goal behind it, preserving the state's water supply, is admirable.

But many legislators haven't endorsed Gov. Bill Graves' proposal to have such a policy in place for Kansas aquifers by 2020.

Some rural legislators, particularly from southwest Kansas, believe a zero depletion policy -- mandating that the water taken from an aquifer over a certain period of time not exceed the rate at which the water is recharged -- would lead to restrictions that would destroy the economy.

A few legislators don't like the Graves plan because they view it as too timid. Legislative leaders are still waiting to see the details.

"You have to make some hard decisions to protect the water that we need," Graves said.

The governor didn't spell out how water tables would be monitored under his zero depletion policy or how it would be enforced. Graves said he wants recommendations from the Kansas Geological Survey.

"At this point, it's a general statement to be followed by the specifics," said spokesman Don Brown.

When legislators and other state officials talk about aquifers, they're thinking mostly of the Ogallala, the major source of water for the western third of Kansas.

A task force on water issues that Graves appointed as part of his Vision 21st Century Initiative advocated a zero depletion policy but didn't set a date for putting it into effect. Graves was bolder.

But Rep. Richard Alldritt, D-Harper, said the governor wasn't bold enough. He believes the state should have the policy in place no later than 2010.

"We can't do enough to protect not only the quality but the quantity of groundwater," Alldritt said.

Other rural legislators envision restrictions on water use that would cripple farms, feedlots, and other businesses.

"It would remove any economic development," said Joann Freeborn, R-Concordia, chairwoman of the House Environment Committee.

Added Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler: "It would devastate southwest Kansas."

Caught in the debate are legislative leaders, who are approaching the subject cautiously.

For example, Sen. Dave Kerr said he believes the state has to lessen depletion of its aquifers. But, he's not sure 2020 is the right deadline for imposing a zero depletion policy.

"I don't believe I've studied that issue sufficiently to be sure," said Kerr, R-Hutchinson.

Source: U.S. Water News Online

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