Cities of Hays and Russell and state officials discuss water project

It needs to happen. And it can’t happen quickly enough.

That’s the message shared by local, regional and state officials Friday during a meeting to discuss development of municipal water rights at the R9 Ranch, which is owned by the cities of Hays and Russell.

The sprawling nearly 7,000-acre ranch is located a few miles outside of Kinsley in Edwards County. The City of Hays purchased the ranch in 1995, with Russell buying an 18-percent interest a year later. As two of the largest cities in northwest Kansas — and with counties representing a combined $2 billion regional economy — officials have been working for years to secure a sustainable water supply.

The long-term goal is an $80 million project that will pump groundwater from the ranch and transport to the Smoky Hill River wellfield near Schoenchen, which serves the city of Hays. An additional pipeline would direct water from that location to Russell’s wellfield near Pfeifer.

“Hays and Russell are the water conservation leaders in Kansas. I don’t think that’s any secret,” said Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty. “We’re the water conservation leaders in Kansas because we have to be. We do not have the locally available supply of water.” There are 34 counties in Kansas with a population of more than 15,000. Ellis County is the only one of those counties that does not have adequate surface or groundwater supplies, prompting an urgent need for a supplemental source.

Hays and Russell officials say securing a long-term supply is necessary to grow the local economy and help increase population. The city has looked at many other possible sources through the years, but has been unable to identify another viable option.

Conservation efforts have gone so far as to replicate what residents might face in true desert areas in the southwest part of the nation, Dougherty said, noting conservation efforts will continue even after receiving water from Edwards County. “That’s great if you’re in the desert southwest. But when you’re in the middle of Kansas and nobody else is doing that, it sort of positions you as an outlier,” he said. “So we’re very proud of our conservation efforts, but it’s creating a stigma in the communities that there is no water and we think it’s hamstringing economic development.”

(Read more: News – The Hays Daily News)