Water secretary needed cabinet position in Kansas, lawmaker says

Legislation that would create a water secretary to serve on the governor’s cabinet makes sense to a Kansas lawmaker who is a farmer and rancher.

State Rep. Boyd Orr, a Republican from Fowler and a member of the state’s agriculture committee and vice chair of the water committee, says a bipartisan process has built consensus on addressing direction on water matters. There are 16 different state agencies that touch on water. Direction on water issues not only comes from the Kansas Water Office and Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which is in Topeka, but also from the secretary of agriculture’s office and the Kansas Department of Agriculture, which is based in Manhattan.

The time has come to have one secretary to be devoted to water issues, Orr said.

Orr and state Reps. Brad Ralph, R-Dodge City, and Tatum Lee-Hahn, R-Ness City, attended a Dodge City Area Chamber of Commerce legislative update on Feb. 5 at the city commission meeting room.

As part of the new committee’s work, he believes the agencies are filled with competent employees who tend to “work in a silo.” Orr believes that having a secretary of water could pull all those agencies together and provide Kansans with a one-stop place to get questions answered whether they are a rural or urban user.

On top of the state layers, there are five federal agencies that provide oversight or work in conjunction with the state agencies, he said. With direction from a cabinet level executive he or she could help with applications to access federal monies. Lawmakers recognize with a streamlined approach the state could put itself in better position to tap into federal resources. In the Ogallala Aquifer region, the focus on greater efficiency through technology and reducing the amount of water applied on crops would be a core mission.

“As farmers if we use the latest technology and hybrids we are continuing to develop. It could be sustainable in a few years,” Orr said.

A cabinet level priority can help provide direction to a governor and Legislature to address long-term policies.

The monies could also help with addressing water storage at reservoirs that provide drinking water for urban users. Nearly all the state’s reservoirs were built more than 50 years ago and in some cases they are 50% silted in. A third of Kansans depend on water provided by reservoirs.

He applauded Gov. Laura Kelly for announcing that in her budget she proposes fully funding a water plan.

Lee-Hahn said water is the lifeblood of rural communities and she will likely be a yes vote on water initiatives if they help to protect farmers and ranchers.

She replaced the late Leonard Mastroni, who died in September 2020. Lee-Hahn is a member of the local government committee, ag and natural resources budget committee and elections committee.


State Rep. Brad Ralph said with Kelly’s veto of the Republican-backed Ad Astra 2 plan for changing the U.S. House boundaries he expected the GOP to try to override the veto. He is a member of the House committee that is looking at the boundaries. [Both the House and Senate have since voted to override the veto, and the map is expected to face legal challenges.]

Ralph is vice chair of the judicial and special claims committees, and member of the rules and journal and commerce, labor and economic development committee.

He said with an estimated population of about 3 million people that means each congressional district will have about 750,000 people each. Ralph said when boundaries change it causes angst and historically it means the First District, currently held by U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann, will expand. Mann has Manhattan, Salina, Hutchinson and Dodge City in his district.

The Republican-proposed Ad Astra 2 plan moves Lawrence into the First District, Ralph said. He voiced opposition to lumping southeast Kansas into the First District by simply using the catch-all phrase “rural interests.”

Kelly has noted that putting Lawrence in the First District could mean western Kansas could lose clout, according to an Associated Press story in her veto message.

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Ralph says the congressional redistricting plan will be followed by the need to draw boundaries for the 125 House seats and 40 Senate seats. He expects western Kansas to lose at least one House seat.

Orr said 54% of the Kansas population resides in five counties. Redistricting occurs every 10 years.

Other issues

• Lee-Hahn said she supports a state constitutional amendment that requires county sheriffs to be elected and not appointed. The lawmaker said the sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer of a county and an amendment lets voters decide.

• She supports a sales tax reduction on food sales as it helps all Kansans.

• Lee-Hahn supports a bill to protecting private property from authorized access by certain government officials and unauthorized surveillance. She was concerned about the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism using tracking devices without property owners being aware of it. “We need to protect private property rights.”

• Ralph said Kansas was a finalist for a $4 billion company that wants to create 4,000 jobs and in exchange wants incentives that are still working. The commerce department is encouraging lawmakers to approve an Attracting Powerful Economic Expansion bill. The company is expected to make a decision soon, which was why commerce wanted the bill approved.

Ralph said it was the biggest project in the state’s history. Lawmakers have rightfully expressed reservations since the company is not known, and he has been assured by commerce officials that lawmakers will have a review process. He is not privy to the company’s name or its proposed Kansas location, although Ralph said it would be likely the Kansas City or Wichita regions because they are infrastructure hubs.

“It has taken a lot of the oxygen out of the room,” he said in why other important legislative matters have been put on a back burner for now. The House will take up the Senate’s bill soon.

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].