By JOHN MILBURN
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Gov. Sam Brownback signed new water laws Monday, challenging Kansas farmers and ranchers to use them to conserve the resource for future generations.
The Republican governor said during a signing ceremony in Garden City that if used properly, the two new laws would help extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer, the lifeblood of agriculture in western Kansas.
"Those of you with substantial water permits, I am now asking you to step up on behalf of your children and grandchildren," Brownback said. "I ask you, if you have options, don't use the water. Save it for them."
The Ogallala, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, runs under some 174,000 square miles, stretching through eight states. Geologists didn't fully understand the aquifer, its composition and that its water supply was limited until the late 1950s. The water in it now ranges from more than 300 feet to fewer than 50 feet in places.
One bill would repeal a 1945 law that required use of a certain amount of water each year under a so-called use-it-or-lose-it doctrine. It changes a policy by which many water-rights holders felt they had to pump the maximum amount of water allowed even when they didn't need it just to keep their rights.
The other bill gives rights holders more flexibility in how they use their water each year. The program allows farmers and ranchers to use more than a year's allotment of water for irrigation in dry years to help struggling crops reach maturity. The extra water used is counted toward the water-rights holder's total he or she can use over a set period, without penalty.
Brownback, who was joined by legislators from western Kansas, said the laws' flexibility will allow farmers to use more water in dry years, with an eye toward conservation in wet years.
Both measures were part of the agenda Brownback outlined in January for the 2012 legislative session. The changes were in part a response to an extreme drought that has gripped much of western Kansas for nearly two years. Estimates place agriculture losses from the drought at close to $2 billion.
Agriculture groups applauded the new laws, calling them good policy for the industry and Kansas economy.
"It will go a long way in conserving the precious resource out west," said Ron Seeber, a lobbyist for the Kansas Agribusiness Retailers Association and Kansas Grain and Feed Association. "It think people realized the current policy just wasn't' working anymore."
The drought has been most pronounced in southwest Kansas in the areas bordering Colorado and Oklahoma. Twelve counties in the region remained in an extreme drought as of Feb. 28, and dry conditions generally exist over much of the state south of Interstate 70.
Senate President Steve Morris, a farmer from Hugoton, said irrigation was crucial to western Kansas' economy.
"Without the ability to grow high-value crops, not only does ag production suffer, but we may also lose other industries such as beef and bio-fuels that rely on those commodities," said Morris, a Republican.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.