The Quivira water fight continues. Birds, farmers and government entities are trying to come up with a resolution.

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
Little Salt Marsh at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

Finding an equitable solution to what becomes of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and its impact on the central Kansas water table is once again on the table. 

This week, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Audubon of Kansas to honor the senior water rights of the 22,000-acre refuge.

Quivira is a resting place to half a million waterfowl each year. This crucial water stop helps birds, including 180,000 sandhill cranes and about 5,000 white pelicans, as they fly toward their destination. 

More than 200 bird species, 60 types of butterflies, 400 varieties of plants and 50 different reptiles, amphibians and mammals frequent Quivira. Much of the land is filled with water, making it a desirable stop for migration.

But, farmers in the area are also in need of water to grow their crops and feed their cattle. Although some of these farmers and ranchers are senior rights holders, many are considered junior rights holders, as they were granted water rights after the refuge was created in 1957.

For years, Quivira, the Kansas Department of Agriculture, farmers and water management organizations have tried to figure out a resolution to the finite supply of water in this area. 

Audubon tries to help the birds

On Jan. 15, Audubon of Kansas filed suit in federal court to restore the water rights belonging to the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Audubon of Kansas is a nonprofit environmental organization with more than 4,000 members. 

According to Audubon of Kansas, Quivira, which lies mostly in Stafford County, is a wetland of international importance and provides sanctuary to a wide variety of waterfowl, shore birds and other wetland species, several of them are listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Although Audubon of Kansas does not yet know their next step, they would be able to refile their suit, according to Richard Seaton, a lawyer and an Audubon of Kansas Trustee. 

"None of the factual or legal contentions were reached by the judge; she just dismissed on procedural grounds," Seaton said. "Our case or lawsuit... was based on  the priority of the preserve to receive a certain amount of water."

Audubon of Kansas contends that Quivira has suffered from a shortage of water for the last 34 years because of excessive groundwater pumping upstream in the Rattlesnake Creek basin by irrigators, whose water rights are junior to that of the refuge.

"These are water birds, and they depend on an adequate supply (of water)," Seaton said. "Some years it's good, but a lot of years it's not."

The issue

Although Quivira is a man-made entity, it is considered a senior entity for water rights. This means the refuge's water rights supersede the junior water rights in the immediate area. This restricted area includes parts of Edwards, Kiowa, Pawnee, Pratt, and Stafford counties. 

For years, the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s chief engineer said the stream flows from junior pumping, mainly farmers, has led to the regular and significant impairment of Quivira’s water right. At that time, KDA’s chief engineer said a 30% reduction in pumping was required. 

It was also discovered that Quivira needed to eliminate many of its plants that were detrimental to the flow of the water, having waterways filled in with silt and excessive vegetation.

In April 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed a water impairment notice with the KDA. Since then, KDA and the Big Bend Groundwater Management District 5 tried to come up with a solution to satisfy both Quivira and the communities surrounding the refuge.

In 2019, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran brought all entities to the table to try to negotiate a plan that all could work with. 

At the time, the Big Bend GMD 5, which oversees the area, and the KDA agreed that augmentation, which is bringing water from one area to another, was a robust part of the solution. GMD5 covers Barton, Edwards, Kiowa, Pawnee, Pratt, Reno and Rice counties. 

The former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Aurelia Skipwith, left, listens as Mark Oldham, the manager of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, tells a crowd of stakeholders about the refuge.

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The economics of Quivira

If the junior rights were curtailed, the surrounding area, including Stafford, St. John and all the nearby counties, would suffer economically.

"We need to continue to be able to use our water for agricultural purposes here," said executive director of Stafford County Economic Development, Carolyn Dunn. "If they were to curtail that arbitrarily, it would have a devastating effect, economically here. You would have a ripple effect that would get into viability of schools and every other social service tax base, (including) employment."

Dunn said the economic impact would be at least $325 million a year in reduction of crop and animal agriculture, leading to a drastic drop in population and forcing businesses to close and farmers to leave their land. The ripple effect, she said, would approach $750 million.

"I think that the compromise that the Division of Water Resources has led is reasonable," she said.

More:Quivira, farmers work together

Quivira Wildlife Refuge deer

What is the resolution?

"We are still working toward a mutually beneficial resolution with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," said Orrin Feril, manager of Big Bend OMD5. "The district has received the funding through NRCS to conduct a watershed plan — an environmental assessment."

This plan, which is expected to be complete in 2022, will evaluate proposed resolutions or proposed ideas for resolution through federal regulations. A Kansas City company will conduct the research.

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"This process will be very public and transparent as we go along," Feril said. "There'll be several stakeholder meetings for public input throughout the process to make sure that what we're doing or proposing to do is evaluated, not just from a water resource standpoint but also from a socioeconomic (one)."

These actions will be evaluated under both sate and federal laws.

"By the time we get to 2023," Feril said, "we'll have assessed the various alternatives for resolution, and then have a working concept to go off of."