More information on the Kansas Department of Agriculture-Division of Water Resources investigation into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s impairment complaint involving Quivira National Wildlife Refuge can be found on the KDA website, agriculture.ks.gov/quivira.
Comments can be made until May 13 and submitted by mail to the Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Water Resources at 1320 Research Park Dr., Manhattan, KS 66502, or by email to Chris.Beightel@kda.ks.gov.
QUIVIRA WILDLIFE REFUGE — No action will be taken this year regarding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s complaint that junior water rights holders have for years usurped the agency’s water for wildlife that rely on the critical Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Stafford County.
Kansas Department of Agriculture spokesperson Heather Lansdowne said KDA’s Division of Water Resources extended the comment period for the first draft of the initial report on the USFWS impairment complaint regarding the famed wetland. At the request of the Big Bend Groundwater Management District Number 5, the period will run until May 13.
“We want to try and come up with a solution that those users can propose that will be satisfactory to all involved,” Lansdowne said. “We want to make sure everyone has a voice.”
The USFWS owns and operates the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, a wetland of international significance and part of the central U.S. flyway. The agency filed an impairment complaint with KDA-DWR in April of 2013, claiming that its senior water right in the lower end of the Rattlesnake Creek Basin has been impaired.
“We want to identify what the next steps are,” Landsdowne said.
The basin, led by GWMD 5, is tentatively scheduled to have a plan to KDA-DWR chief engineer David Barfield for review by Aug. 15.
“We are hoping to develop a solution,” Landsdowne said, adding they want to avoid any punitive action.
A long-running issue
Water is a critical component refuge operations, USFWS notes.
The service’s water right for Quivira has a priority that dates back to 1957 and is located at the lower end of the Rattlesnake Creek basin, within GMD 5. The service’s water right at Quivira allows it to divert up to 14,632 acre-feet per year at a maximum rate of 300 cubic feet per second, but it hasn’t been getting anything close to that for years, wildlife officials claim.
In the 1990s, a cooperative effort involving water users, the USFWS, KDA-DWR, the management district and the Water Protection Association of Central Kansas (representing farmers and agribusiness) started. But, decades of voluntary efforts failed resolve concerns so the service filed its impairment complaint with KDA-DWR in April of 2013, Lansdowne said.
The KDA-DWR then began its investigation. “This has been a concern for quite a long time,” Landsdowne said.
Division of Water Resources published an initial impairment investigation report on Dec. 2, 2015. It analyzed historical records and evaluated the effects that junior groundwater pumping has had on Quivira’s water supply using the GMD No. 5 groundwater model.
The analysis indicates that junior groundwater pumping has impaired the service from exercising its senior water right for Quivira.
However, no action will be taken in 2016, Landsdowne said. Concurrent with the review of the initial report, KDA-DWR will work with Basin stakeholders to develop and evaluate alternatives to address resource problems identified by the initial report.
“This is a huge deal,” said Mike Oldham, Quivira Refuge manager. Although little known, the problem has been simmering since the 1970s but only came to the fore about 30 years ago before the USFWS action in 2013.
The refuges draws almost all of its surface water from Rattlesnake Creek, which winds its way to Stafford County from the Greensburg area. “That’s our source of water, period,” Oldham said.
Both Quivira and the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in Barton County are internationally important wetlands and key stops on the migratory path for birds flying north and south. “If they don’t have water here, they have to keep moving,” Oldham said of south-bound birds. Other than small farm ponds, they may have to seek refuge in Oklahoma or elsewhere.
Quivira is not alone in this problem, Oldham said. In fact, dwindling water resources not only impacts wildlife, but humans as well.
“This is happening all over the state,” he said, adding it is an issue in surrounding states as well.
“Were not getting any more water,” he said. Things will likely get worse and “we don’t know where the next answers lie.”
What comes next?
What caused the problem? “By in large, it is irrigation for farming,” said KDA-DWR Water Management Services Program Manager Chris Beightel.
The Rattlesnake Creek Basin covers a large area. Ranging from 20-plus to about 12 miles wide, it stretches from Kiowa and Ford counties up to Rice County where it joins the Arkansas River.
Quivira is concerned about the northern end that feeds the refuge located in the far northeast corner of Stafford County.
It was the KDA-DWR that ordered the comment period extension at the request of the Groundwater Management District 5 which covers all or part of eight central Kansas counties, including Stafford County. There are five groundwater districts in Kansas, all fall under the KDA-DWR.
“Our charge is to give all stakeholders a voice in managing the aquifer, quantity and quality,” said Stafford-based GWMD 5 Manager Orrin Feril. The district acts as an intermediary of sorts trying to balance the needs of all parties.
The district is charged with navigating the very complex world of water law and drafting the plan to submit to the KDA-DWR with the Aug. 15 deadline, Feril said. It is hoped that all involved will sign off on it.
It is too early to say what might happen if not everyone likes the plan, Feril said.
Now that the impairment complaint has been lodged, Beightel said his agency is “bound and obliged to do something about it.”
He said there are two parallel tracks in motion. First is the factual, technical report and second are the on-going discussions and meetings with water users and their representatives in the basin.
Ultimately, the USFWS could request to secure its water, Beightel said. This could mean administering the junior water right holders in such a way that the refuge’s water claim can be fulfilled.
“We hope it doesn’t come to that,” Beightel said. So, “all of the stakeholders are actively trying to find a solution.”
At the end of the day, all officials want is to increase stream flow.