Vice-Mayor Henry Schwaller knows that if there’s one thing that is essential to ensuring the economic success of his city, it’s safe, reliable water. Schwaller was born and raised in Hays, Kansas and public service runs in the family. His family moved to Ellis County in the late 1880s and his great-great-grandfather served on the City Commission in 1889, followed by his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and then various other family members. Hays has served on the City Commission for the better part of 18 years and during that time, he and his fellow commissioners have made securing sufficient, sustainable water resources to meet their growing demand a top priority. I spoke with Schwaller about the history of Hays’ water portfolio, their water crisis in the 1990s, and an innovative water transfer agreement currently in development.
Why did you decide to run for political office in Hays? What issues were you most interested in addressing if elected?
I first ran and was elected in 1999 after being asked to run by a then current city commissioner who thought this would be a good opportunity for me. When I decided to run, my focus wasn’t really water or sustainability, I was most interested in bringing a new voice to the commission and was really focused on fiscal responsibility and trying to grow our economy. At the time our economy was just climbing out of a major crash.
Where does Hays receive its water supply from?
We have four water sources, but two make up the vast majority of our supply. Most of our water comes from the Big Creek well fiedl, which is within city limits and is both surface and groundwater supply. Then about 40% of our water comes from a well field south of Hays along the Smoky Hill River. The Smoky Hill wells which were drilled in the late 1940s were what triggered Hays’ water crisis in the early 1990s.
In the mid-80’s, the City of Hays faced a severe water challenge when many of the city’s wells dried up due to population growth and high per capita water usage. How did the city address this challenge?
In 1980, the city had grown from a population of about 5,000 in the late to 16,000 people. Unfortunately, at the same time that our water demand was rapidly growing, we were also experiencing a series of droughts. Then, in 1987, the economy collapsed. By the early 1990s, the City wasn’t doing well and so the well fields along the Smoky weren’t being maintained. Some of the wells actually weren’t able to pump any water at all. The City manager at the time knew this but didn’t tell the commission and when they found out he was terminated.
As a result, there was a really aggressive push to rehabilitate the wells as much as possible and to find new sources of water. It quickly became clear that this wasn’t going to be an easy, quick fix. There were no silver bullets to finding a new water source, so the city implemented the first conservation measures. We developed a very simple showerhead exchange program and then low-flow toilets became available. We also taught children in our grade schools where water comes from and how to conserve it. We developed outdoor conservation measures where we capped the time of day when people could water their yards to avoid evaporative loss. We also adopted new metering technology and replaced a number of water lines so we have far lower than average water loss in our distribution system than most.
Why did the City decide to purchase R9 Ranch and its water rights in 1994?
After the economic and water crisis, there was a consensus that if we wanted to keep growing, something needed to be done. By the early 1990s, the price of oil had dropped dramatically in Ellis County from about $60 to $7 per barrel, agriculture prices had dropped, and manufacturing collapsed. We hadn’t seen an economic crash in the area that bad since the 1930s. When the water crisis hit, we realized we needed to get serious because if we were going to recruit new business and make our economy more recession proof we needed water.
So we passed a ballot initiative to raise funds for water exploration and development. Then we began looking at various water sources. We put together a cross-sectional, blue ribbon committee of people from all over the community who came together to find a new water source. This group discovered that the R9 ranch had become available in Edwards County and through a series of discussions, they eventually agreed to purchase the ranch.
Kansas water law has change of use, change of source, and change of location stipulations that make converting a water right from agriculture to municipal use complicated, so we knew then that this was going to be very difficult. But we also knew that this was a big asset and even if we couldn’t harvest it right away it would be a great card to have in our hand for the future.
Can you explain how Hays plans to ensure that the aquifer is managed sustainably?
We had a tenant farmer on the property and one of the problems we identified were high levels of nitrates and sulfites on the ranch. We began to convert the fields to alfalfa production so it didn’t need to be fertilized, which would help protect the aquifer. There’s a direct connection between the R9 Ranch wells and the aquifer because it’s very sandy soil and the water infiltrates easily. We also began to cut back on pumping at the ranch by taking some of the center pivots out of production.
Then we began to develop a plan for sustainability of the aquifer. We currently have about 7,800 acre-feet (AF) of water available at the ranch, and we realized that we don’t need all of it. We only use 2,100 AF of water today and even with other regional communities that we’d like to supply water to, we’d still never get anywhere near 7,800 AF. Through our research, we determined that the sustainable yield from the aquifer is 4,500 AF per year. The City Council decided that to ensure the sustainability of the aquifer, we would not exceed that 4,500 AF allotment per year over a 10 year period. This means that if we don’t need all of the water allotment one year, we can bank it and use additional water in another dry year. Or if we exceed our allotment one year, we need to pull less from the aquifer in the following years.
When we bought the ranch, they were pumping 8,000 AF per year, as were all the neighbors. Today, we’re not pumping anything and the aquifer has risen quite a bit. We’ve also converted the ranch to all-natural grasses so it can be a nature preserve. Additionally, a few years ago, we were able to offer a habitat for the prairie-chicken which is on the threatened species list. We’re trying to use the land appropriately in a fully sustainable manner and to make sure that we take just enough water to suit our needs while keeping the aquifer safe.
Hays plans to share some of the water from R9 with neighboring communities. How will you structure these water sharing agreements to ensure that these cities use water in a responsible, sustainable way?
As we’ve executed these agreements with other communities we’ve had conversations with them about using the water for activities that aren’t water intensive. For example, one community south of here would like to tap in and they’ve approved hog farming, which is a very high water use industry. So we told them, “you know, we really can’t supply water to you if you’re going to use it for hog farming because that’s just not sustainable here”. As we move forward we’ll continue to have these conversations with our partners.
How do Hays’ water utility staff and councilmembers work together to make important decisions about the utility?
We work together every day. We receive weekly updates on well field status and we’re notified if there are any emergencies. For example, this year we had more precipitation than we normally receive which led to more water line breaks than usual. They inform us of every anomaly and we authorize the solution to get it fixed. We work hand-in-hand with our staff and very much rely on them to keep us informed and if they need something we deliver it.
Water can sometimes be a polarizing issue. Coming from different sides of the political spectrum – Mayor Meier you identify as Republican and Vice-Mayor Schwaller, you’re the Chair of the Local Democratic Party - why do you think that Hays and its city council has been able to address sustainable water management in a bipartisan way?
There are a couple of reasons. First, in Kansas city councilmembers generally run without party affiliation. We’re not elected as Democrats, Republicans, or Independents so we don’t have this focus on party. And second, we know that working together is necessary for our survival. While we have quibbled over various approaches, the unifying sense is that this is something serious and we need to handle it and that goes beyond anyone’s party. I vote with my conservative friends just as much as they vote with me. We actually very seldom disagree on policy.
Local units of government in Kansas, although they’re under a lot more stress than before due to state funding cuts, have an attitude of “let’s roll up our sleeves and what can we do to get things done?”
Why do you think that sustainable water management in Hays and the rest of Kansas is so important? And what are the main challenges to achieving a sustainable water future?
Well this is particularly important in Kansas because we’re still a very strong agricultural-based economy. The primary water source in Kansas is the Ogallala Aquifer and we’ve done a really good job of over pumping it. It’s not in our culture to say “you shouldn’t grow corn and soy beans”, so we’re irrigating too heavily. One thing that Governor Brownback was able to do during his time in office was to eliminate the “use it or lose it” provision in the State’s water law. The governor was able to get some water districts to agree to pump less water when they didn’t need it. We need to keep spreading the message of sustainability in agriculture.
We also need to use municipal water more efficiently. No matter where I travel in Kansas I still see people watering the street! And there seems to be no penalty. We’re so big in Kansas on wind energy and other forms of sustainable energy, but we don’t focus on water usage and I would hope that that’s something we focus on moving forward.