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Feb. 1, 2024 |  By: Allison Kite - Missouri Independent

Lawmakers hope to block Missouri water from being exported to other states


By Allison Kite - Missouri Independent

As climate change and groundwater pumping leave arid western states hurting for water, Missouri lawmakers are considering legislation to keep the state’s water from being shipped outside its borders. 

“You may hear about states like California and Kansas in the news having water shortages,” said state Sen. Jason Bean, a Republican from Holcomb. “We don’t want to lose our water because they’ve mismanaged theirs.”

With the Missouri River running through the middle of the state, the Mississippi along its eastern border and the Osage River that feeds the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri is home to a host of reliable freshwater systems. But Bean and other Missouri lawmakers fear as other states grapple with a drier future, they might look to Missouri as a solution. 

“The way the federal government is throwing money around, don’t think it can’t happen,” said Rep. Jamie Burger, a Republican from Benton. “Even if it costs $10 billion to get our water from Missouri to Kansas, to California, to wherever it may be, it can happen.”

Bean and Burger introduced legislation this year that would prohibit exporting water from Missouri unless authorized by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. It’s backed by Missouri agricultural and environmental groups and received support from Republican and Democratic legislators alike.

“I farm in Kansas with my brother and water has become an unbelievable, precious resource,” said Brent Hemphill, a lobbyist for the Missouri Soybean Association, “and I just don’t want Missouri to become Kansas.” 

Kansas sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, a formation millions of years old that includes the largest underground store of freshwater in the nation. Since the mid-20th Century, farmers have pumped water from the Ogallala to irrigate crops, bringing parts of western Kansas within a generation of running dry.

Burger said in an interview with The Independent that he wasn’t aware of any efforts to export water from the state aside from some longstanding agreements along the state’s borders with Arkansas and Oklahoma. 

“We just don’t want some of the western states that are struggling for water capacities to be able to pipe into our aquifers and pump our water in any direction,” Burger said. “We want to keep that for Missourians.”

Burger said the state couldn’t prohibit someone in a bordering state from pumping water that’s shared between the two — such as Illinois using the Mississippi River. 

Despite its abundant water sources, Missouri has been struggling through a prolonged drought — on and off — for more than a year and a half. As of last week, more than 80% of the state was in some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Almost 14% was in a severe drought.

In July, more than one-quarter of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought.

Rep. Paula Brown, the ranking Democrat on the House’s natural resources committee, said she toured Missouri over the summer and saw bodies of water that were “frighteningly low.”

“I’ve seen the bottom of rivers and lakes that I canoed and swam in growing up as a kid,” said Brown, who is from St. Louis County, “and I am very nervous about the water in Missouri. I don’t want any of it leaving.”

Michael Berg, state political director for the Sierra Club, said the environmental nonprofit supports the purpose of the bill but wants to make sure it doesn’t harm agreements with communities along Missouri’s borders to meet water needs on both sides.

Chris Wieberg, deputy director of the Missouri Geological Survey, told a Missouri Senate committee last month that the state is seeing an increasing number of water transfer proposals. 

He cited the longshot Kansas aqueduct, a proposal pushed by groundwater managers in southwest Kansas to offset the decline of the area’s primary water resource, the Ogallala Aquifer, which has been over pumped for decades to support agriculture in the arid region.

The project, as it’s proposed, would pump water from the Missouri River in northeast Kansas hundreds of miles to the southwest. 

Groundwater Management District 3 in southwest Kansas spent thousands to truck 6,000 gallons of water from the Missouri River to farms in Wichita County and Colorado in an attempt to prove a pipeline could work, but the idea is largely dismissed by state officials.