Proposed modifications to the regional Aquifer Storage and Recovery project have been an item of contention between the city of Wichita and surrounding areas for almost a full year now.

The discussion itself may not be new, but Groundwater Management District No. 2 (based out of Halstead and serving Harvey, McPherson, Reno and Sedgwick counties) recently added its voice to the chorus of those raising concerns about the potential changes with the release of an official statement taking issue with said modifications.

Established 25 years ago, the ASR project was intended to divert water from the Little Arkansas River when it flows high, treat it to drinking water standards and inject the processed water into the Equus Beds aquifer (a primary water source for the region — and the sole source in Harvey County). Doing so allows the city of Wichita to accumulate recharge credits with the Kansas Department of Agriculture, allowing it to withdraw the additional water from the Equus Beds aquifer — which spans the west half of Harvey County, and further — when needed, like in drought conditions.

Changes being put forward by Wichita, however, raise questions of legality in the eyes of GMD2 manager Tim Boese.

"What they want to be able to do is during times when the aquifer is in a fuller state, they want to be able to take that water from the Little Arkansas, take it directly to the city for municipal use and get a credit without actually injecting the water into the ground," Boese said. "We believe that's not an acceptable practice to get a groundwater credit without physically adding to the groundwater source."

Passive recharge credits (gaining a recharge credit without physically injecting into the groundwater source) are strictly prohibited, Boese stated, which is one of the main reasons GMD2 released its statement in opposition to the modifications.

It is not only Boese's opinion, though, as GMD2 consulted numerous experts while drafting its statement — including the former chief engineer of the Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Water Resources, David Pope, who also sees legal issues with the idea of earning aquifer maintenance credits.

"Because that area where the (Wichita) city well field is, and the aquifer, is what we call over-appropriated, there's no new permits allowed; we're over safe yield in that area," Boese said. "To be able to pump more groundwater you really, in our opinion, you have to add water to the source first, not fictitious credits, not aquifer maintenance credits."

While GMD2's main issue was with the idea of being able to accrue recharge credits without actually injecting groundwater, another item proposed by the city of Wichita centers on when those recharge credits can be utilized — namely in dropping the threshold to meet "drought level" and allowing for the use of said credits.

This philosophy drew less concern among Boese and the other experts from which input was sought, but Boese pointed out that the responsibility to show negligible impact to surrounding water users (mainly in Sedgwick and Harvey counties) rests on the city of Wichita — and the experts believe the city did not meet that.

"It is the burden of the applicant to demonstrate, if they want to make a change to existing water permits, it's their burden to show that it won't impair other users, it won't unreasonably affect the public interests, it won't cause an unreasonable lowering or raising of the water level," Boese said. "They think more work needs to be done. There's some issues with the modeling and also our experts determined they didn't really examine what the impacts were to other users, what the impact was to the aquifer, what the impact was to stream flow and then also didn't evaluate what impact that would be for saltwater migration from the Burrton area and the Arkansas River area."

"Really, in our opinion...if they (the city) want these changes they have to show their changes aren't going to impact others in the aquifer," Boese said. "In our opinion, that wasn't done."

Gathering expert reports in order to formulate GMD2's statement was something Boese said was done intentionally, so the entity had all the information before authoring its opinion.

Now, having submitted its report to the chief engineer of the Division of Water Resources, Boese and GMD2 will wait to testify at a public hearing to be held in Colwich March 26 and 27. That will inform the final decision, which Boese said he will keep an eye on, as will the Harvey County Commission.

Currently, Harvey County administration is drafting a letter in support of GMD2's position — though commissioners expect the legality of these measures may remain under question (through lawsuits) well after the chief engineer's ruling is made.

The public hearing will begin at 8:30 a.m. March 26 at ICM (125 N. First St., Colwich).