The water rights system in Kansas comes from nearly seven decades of laws passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor, starting with the Water Appropriation Act of 1945, which created a water rights framework that has been modified to fit new circumstances. The minimum stream-flow law was passed in 1985, while the multi-year allocation was one of six water management reforms signed this year by Republican Governor Sam Brownback, a former U.S. Senator.
The 530 permit holders in Kansas who are now facing restrictions represent a cross-section of water uses. Towns, industries, and recreation have all been affected — however, more than half of the restricted permits are held by irrigators.
Whereas eastern Kansas has streams but little groundwater, the other half of the state relies on aquifers. For a time, groundwater was a natural insurance policy — if the rains failed or the rivers ran dry, plenty of water is located under foot. Not so anymore in Kansas, where groundwater and surface water are managed jointly.
Because rivers right now are essentially dry in western Kansas, farmers are pumping a full allocation of groundwater, taxing an already-stressed system.
Kansas lawmakers have tried to help producers through the rough patch. Thanks to new laws, farmers can convert a single-year water right into a five-year account and vary their use according to the whims of weather and markets.
That allows farmers to take advantage of rising crop prices.