Irrigation well gets DWR nod despite objections by GWMD

By Rod Haxton, editor

The drilling of an irrigation well in Western Kansas wouldn’t normally be big news in an area where circle pivots are as common as sunflowers along rural roads.

But when an irrigation well is drilled at a time when most everyone is in agreement that water rights have been overappropriated, in a groundwater management district that is technically “closed” to new drilling, and at a time when that same GWMD is voting to cut irrigation consumption by 20 percent, then the drilling of a new well doesn’t go unnoticed.

And that attention wasn’t very favorable in advance of the recently failed effort to establish a Local Enhanced Management Area (LEMA) in GWMD No. 1.

At issue was the state’s approval of drilling rights to the LaVerne Huslig family on farm ground four miles south of Scott City.

That activity didn’t go unnoticed by area farmers.

During the recent LEMA vote, GWMD Chairman Greg Graff said he’d heard comment about the decision to allow drilling and felt it may have caused some water rights holders to vote against the LEMA. Jan King, GWMD director, agrees that the timing of the decision by the Kansas Division of Water Resources was “unfortunate.”

The GWMD was locked in an unsuccessful battle to stop the drilling request which dates back more than 16 years.

“This is something which the groundwater district has fought for years. It began before I became the district manager,” says King, who became the manager in 2011.

Under today’s GWMD policy, the well would not have been approved, regardless of how many appeals were filed with the DWR. However, the drilling request had to be considered under guidelines in place at the time it was originally filed.

Despite the GWMD’s objections, that was a loophole the GWMD or DWR could not close.

 

“The chief engineer (with DWR) gives the final approval on any water appropriation. That decision is based on acts and rules in place at the time of the filing,” explains Lane Letourneau, water appropriation program manager for the DWR. “The rules in 1998 said this was permissible, even though we tried to dismiss it twice.”

A Long History

The well appropriation approved for the Husligs was one of four filed by the family. The initial filing date for the application was February 1998, according to the DWR.

Letourneau says the Husligs were approved for “three applications that would allow them to drill multiple wells.” Applications approved by the DWR allow for the drilling of two wells each. Wells would have to meet spacing requirements.

Letourneau says the applications have been approved by the DWR, and the process is currently in the completion stage. He said the department hasn’t heard whether the Husligs have found enough water to make irrigation viable.

The fact this issue is still alive more than 16 years after the initial application still doesn’t set well with some GWMD board members.

“We went through three managers and we couldn’t find a reason why this application should be approved,” says GWMD Board Chairman Greg Graff.

 

Safe Yield Policy

The key issue in the debate over the Huslig application is what water officials refer to as “safe yield.”

It refers to the amount of water that can be pumped from the aquifer in areas that have recharge without being detrimental to existing wells.

“Of the four applications filed, only three were approved because one didn’t meet safe yields,” Letourneau says.

That’s where the GWMD and DWR disagreed.

The GWMD had recommended that the appropriation request be denied because it didn’t meet safe yield. The Husligs filed an appeal with the DWR providing different data which showed they did meet safe yield guidelines.

Graff says the GWMD was using its data in addition to data from the Kansas Geological Survey.

“When that data didn’t go the way the Husligs wanted they developed their own information and took that to the DWR,” Graff says. “We were using KGS saturated thickness maps and our data was called into question. The Husligs said that the KGS maps showing saturated thickness were wrong.”

Graff and fellow board members were surprised that the DWR chose to go with information provided by the Husligs and not the KGS.

“The information presented by the Husligs changed the safe yield amounts,” acknowledged Graff. “We told the DWR that if they approved this they would be the bad guys. They’re the ones who gave this the green light.”

In their ruling that was favorable to the Husligs, the DWR authorized the following water usage amounts:

Well 1: 550 acre feet; 800 gallons per minute.

Well 2: 550 acre feet; 800 gallons per minute. However, this is in combination with Well No. 1, so the two wells were limited to a total of 550 acre feet.

Well 3: 380 acre feet; 800 gallons per minute. But this is separate from the first two wells.

This would provide a combination of the three wells a total of 930 acre feet.

“That doesn’t mean all three wells can get 930 acre feet of water. And none of the three will be able to pump 800 gallons (per minute),” says King. “That much water isn’t available.”

Letourneau, who has been program manager with the DWR since 2006, noted that the circumstances surrounding the initial application “happened before my time.”

After Letourneau was appointed to his position hearings were again held regarding the Huslig request. The applications were reinstated while the DWR collected more data about safe yields.

“These files were dusted off when I became program manager,” says Letourneau. “We had to go with rules that were in effect at the time the applications were filed. At that time, the GWMD had not closed the district to drilling. The Husligs showed they met the rules at the time of the filing.”

While the GWMD has always been opposed to the application, the board felt it was even more difficult for the state to justify the appropriation now given what’s known about the aquifer and the ongoing efforts to reduce irrigation.

“We were saying that at this time, to allow for more drilling, is not practical,” says King. “We have even less water now than we did (in 1998) when this application was filed. Apparently, that didn’t matter.”

However, the Husligs are under a final time line.

“If they don’t get the completion (phase) done by the end of 2014, this application is done,” Letourneau emphasizes. “They won’t get an extension because they’ve already gotten one.”

Letourneau says it’s unfortunate if this decision was a factor in the vote that saw a proposed LEMA defeated by a 173-158 count.

“What’s awesome is that nearly half the people wanted the LEMA. It’s unfortunate if someone got heartburn over the Huslig application,” he says.

Letourneau points out that the Huslig application is a lone exception now that GWMD has been closed to new appropriations since April 15, 2011. And with the exception of some areas along the state line with Oklahoma, he says “most  of GWMD No. 3 is closed to new appropriations.”

GWMD No. 4, which covers all or part of 10 counties in northwest Kansas, is effectively closed to new appropriations because it doesn’t meet safe yield guidelines.

Letourneau was firm on the DWR’s position following the Huslig application.

“There will be no new appropriations (in GWMD No. 1),” he noted, “unless the groundwater district changes its rules.”

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What is safe yield?

Safe yield is a calculation by the district which determines the amount of water that can be pumped from an area given the amount of recharge. GWMD No. 1 had a safe yield policy in effect from 1994 until the district officially was closed to new wells on April 15, 2011.

Within GWMD No. 1, that calculation took into account the following:

•Recharge of one-half inch per year.

•The amount of water that this would represent within a two-mile circle of a proposed irrigation well (8,042 acres).

•Subtract the water usage by those wells with a higher priority.

•Determine the amount of water that could be pumped by a proposed well.

“We don’t use this calculation anymore since this is a closed district,” says GWMD Director Jan King.

King says the calculation would come into play if Huslig wants to move a non-completed well by filing a point of diversion. The state would have to determine if water is available at the new location.

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