Kickapoo's recent events show water's importance as policy issue 6-10-07

KICKAPOO INDIAN RESERVATION, Kan. (AP) - Tribal leaders are acutely aware of water's importance, having faced three decades of supply problems here. But in recent years, water hasn't seemed anywhere near the top of most Kansas policy makers' agenda.

That's not surprising, with legislators entangled in a lawsuit that made funding for public schools a dominant concern for a few years and with the State Board of Education bringing Kansas international attention by renewing a debate over evolution. This year, the biggest event of the legislative session was approval of a bill to expand gambling.

Still, two events within the past week showed the importance of water as an issue.

The first was the news that David Pope plans to leave his job as director and chief engineer of the Kansas Department of Agriculture's Division of Water Resources after 24 years. He's sometimes called the state's “water czar,” a description he dislikes, and he's the official with the most say in who uses how much water in Kansas.

The second event involved the Kickapoo, whose reservation is 45 miles northeast of Topeka. Flooding in May weakened its dam on the Delaware River. If the dam is lost, the tribe can't draw from the river, its only source of water.

The tribe called a meeting last week with officials from six federal agencies to deal with the problem and to vent their frustration over the long-standing problems with their water supply. Without water, they said, their self-governing community will die.

“We will continue to fight for our inherent right to practice genuine self-determination with water as our ally,” tribal Chairman Steve Cadue said.

It's a cruel irony for the Kickapoo that flooding caused their latest problem, because they've worried most about dry conditions leaving them without adequate water.

The tribe used to get its supply from the city of Horton, but that arrangement fell victim to drought in the 1970s. That in turn led to construction of the small dam across the Delaware, which flows into Lake Perry.

With the help of federal officials, the tribe used wooden planks to make the dam taller in 2001, to hold back another two feet of the river. Yet in 2004, the river was low enough that the tribe had to haul water onto the reservation.

“In 90 days, one community in the United States had to haul its entire drinking water supply from a water source 30 miles away, by truck,” said Damon Williams, the tribe's general counsel. “It's just a travesty beyond explanation.”

Fueling the tribe's frustration is a belief that it has a permanent solution. Tribal leaders want to dam Plum Creek, which flows into the Delaware, creating a new reservoir. Congress has appropriated money for the project since 1998, yet work hasn't moved forward because of conflicts with area residents over how much they'd be paid for the land they'd lose.

But the Kickapoo reservation isn't the only place where there's been conflict over water, something Pope knows all too well.

In the 1990s, he developed rules for slowing the depletion of the High Plains Aquifer in western Kansas and for determining how to make room for new demands for water in areas where water rights are already appropriated. His rules made him unpopular in some quarters, and a 1999 law - backed by his own boss, then-Agriculture Secretary Allie Devine - was designed to rein in his power.

But Pope still didn't lose his ability to inspire a legislative backlash.

As he prepares to depart next week for a new job leading a Missouri River group, he's not yet decided whether he'll follow through on a plan to expand an Intensive Groundwater Use Control Area in Pawnee County into Ness and Hodgeman counties. Inside such an area, the chief engineer can cut water consumption. A bill to block the plan failed this year but could resurface next year.

At least a few legislators still question whether the chief engineer, who's a part of the civil service system, is accountable enough to the people, a question Devine raised as she supported the 1999 law. But even some agriculture industry officials and environmentalists agree they don't want the position to become political.

In more than two decades on the job, he became Kansas' leading water policy expert. The state's clash with Colorado over the Arkansas River has lasted long enough to involve four attorneys general - but until now, not long enough to outlast Pope.

“What was critical in the lawsuit was the data, and we've had good data for a number of years,” said Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, giving credit to Pope, though he's sometimes been critical of how Pope has handled water policy.

Pope leaves with a sense that the division has made significant contributions to improving water policy. But his successors well into the future probably will have to consider new steps to conserve water, particularly in western Kansas.

“Probably the biggest challenge would relate to the long-term management of the High Plains Aquifer,” he said in an interview. “We know there has to be some form of transition to less water use over time, because the water is just physically not going to be there forever.”

Whether it's the new chief engineer inspiring anger over attempts to conserve water or the Kickapoo tribe's efforts to ensure an adequate supply for its reservation, water will remain an important issue in Kansas, no matter what other policy debates obscure it.