Locals speak out against water proposal; hearing continued

By Jared Janzen

HALSTEAD—An answer to Wichita’s quest to modify its Aquifer Storage and Recovery Project is still months away following four days of testimony, last week. The hearing was continued to a date yet to be determined.

The Division of Water Resources, the Groundwater Management District 2 and the Intervenors have not yet presented their case or expert witnesses because presentations from the city of Wichita, as well as cross examination took three full days, Tuesday through Thursday. Wichita still has one more expert witness to present.

Tim Boese, manager of GMD2, said the hearing was probably about a third over, noting there are 13 total witnesses between the four parties so it will probably take between four and eight more days.

“It’s been a long process, and it’s going to continue,” he said. “We’re looking at reschedule dates and it may even be February and March because it’s hard to find a block of days in a row where everyone can get together.”

He expects the next portion of the hearing to also be at First Mennonite Church in Halstead, saying the location had worked well.

Tessa Wendling, the attorney for the Intervenors, said she is optimistic at this stage, even though her group hasn’t presented yet.

“Because we’re last, we can really just highlight on what hasn’t been addressed,” Wendling said. “We’re trying to be responsive to what’s already there in the interest of time.”

The Intervenors are a group of 11 individuals with water permits or domestic wells who oppose the proposal.

Friday morning gave concerned citizens an opportunity to voice their opinions on the proposal. About 70 people attended that morning, with 28 of them addressing the hearing officer.

Ruth Jacob, a member of the Citizens for the Conservation of the Equus Beds that has been rallying opposition to the proposal, told The Independent she was happy with how the public comment portion had gone Friday morning.

“I think it went well,” she said. “We had a lot of good comments and I was happy that many people came up and spoke. And, there were many different subjects brought up, many concerns.”

Hearing Officer Connie Owen, who will eventually make a recommendation whether to accept or reject the proposal, said she would review all these comments very carefully when she makes her decision. Anyone who has already submitted comments will also be part of the record and comments are still being accepted.

“The hearing officer has been very gracious,” Jacob said. “She wants everybody to have as much information as they can.”

Those who spoke represented a fairly broad geographic area, from Bentley and Colwich to Burrton and Hutchinson to Halstead, Sedgwick and Hesston, to Newton and Walton.

One concern that multiple people brought up was the migration of the salt plume near Burrton. They worried that Wichita lowering the aquifer level could cause this salt plume to continue to spread east.

Tommy Logue of Burrton said the salt plume could be a real hazard for people in the future.

“If it continues, for many farmers it could become an extreme problem,” Logue said. “This is the breadbasket of Kansas. If it continues, there may be a lot of hungry people.”

Jack Queen, general manager of Farmers Co-op, said he represented 850 area farmers who would be aversely affected if the salt plume continued to migrate. He said a wait-and-see approach wouldn’t work because once it happens it will be too late.

Anthony Seiler, executive director of the Sedgwick County Farm Bureau, said his organization opposed the proposal. He said the credit system Wichita is proposing is akin to both cashing and depositing the same check at a bank.

State Representative Stephen Owens questioned if Wichita’s proposal was even legal and if the consequences are fully known. He said more research should be done and said he would be willing to help.

Frank Harper of rural Sedgwick said he based his comments on four years serving on the GMD2 board from 2000-2004. When phase one was proposed during that time, he said Wichita had asked GMD2 to spend countless hours trying to turn a base-hit of an idea into a home run.

Gina Bell, planning and zoning director of Harvey County, said she and the county were against Wichita being able to lower water levels any more, which she said would cause problems.

In addition to the 70 people at Friday’s public comment period, 35 members of the public came Tuesday, 27 came Wednesday and 38 came on Thursday, according to the sign-in sheets at the hearing.