ST. JOHN — Driving up to the Stafford County Courthouse Annex Monday afternoon, parking was at a premium for a three-block area surrounding the courthouse. Farmers, ranchers, city and county administrators, and representatives from schools, businesses and community groups covering five counties gathered for the first of two meetings concerning the phasing in of a Kansas Department of Agriculture proposed administrative order aimed resolving an impairment of water rights affecting the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
As the number of attendees exceeded capacity, the fire marshal ordered meeting organizers to divert attendees to two different locations. The meeting proceedings were broadcast to the lobby of the annex, where a screen displayed the associated data was displayed on a screen. The meeting was also live-streamed to the St. John public library.
Kelsey Olson, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture at the Kansas Department of Agriculture, provided the opening comments. Attendees learned a Friday after-hours press release from U.S. Senator Jerry Moran had changed the anticipated conversation.
“Senator Jerry Moran on Friday released a statement that the US Fish and Wildlife Service had made a verbal statement to them that they would not make the request for water at this point,” Olson said. “Since there’s not been a request for water, we do not feel that there’s a need for the administrative orders at this time.”
According to the referenced press release, Moran met with Aurelia Skipwith, the current Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior Friday. Skipwith is in line to be the next Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During the meeting, Moran raised concerns regarding the water rights dispute surrounding the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. As a result of the conversation, Skipwith agreed to continue working with local stakeholders to find a solution to the impairment, putting on hold a request that the KDA move forward with any administrative order to regulate the junior water rights. While efforts had been made for further clarification prior to the meeting, none was forthcoming.
Meeting organizers switched gears and opted to use the meeting to provide background on efforts to date, and how the proposed administrative order was expected to be phased in, as well as some options that could be implemented to avoid that order in the future.
Olson said the point of the meeting Monday would now be to provide facts and talk about the situation, with the intention of working to find a solution.
“It’s not changed that the impairment is occurring and has taken place an we still need a solution to go forward,” she said.
Timing changed, not science
KDA Chief Engineer David Barfield echoed Olson, noting that the science and the law had not changed with Moran’s statement. He provided background about the impairment of senior water rights owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that has been ongoing for several years.
Efforts to come up with a voluntary plan to mitigate the impairment began in 1993, with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Groundwater Management District 5, the Division of Water Resources and a water PAC all weighing in. The USFWS held off until 2013 to file its impairment complaint as well as its requests for water, Olson said. .
The GMD 5 has created two plans, each of which has been rejected, most recently in June, 2019. According to Engineer David Barfield, three reasons were provided : When the plan was rejected, Barfield began finalizing an alternate plan and a timeline for implementation in anticipation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting water and setting into motion the proposed administrative order.
“The groundwater pumping in this basin is having a profound affect on streamflow that is leading to record and significant impairment of the water right, and we need to find remedies for that,” Barfield said.
Groundwater declines is not the driving problem here in terms of a water resources problem, he said. That doesn’t’ mean the groundwater is not affecting the surface flows, which is really what the problem is. Groundwater pumped by junior water rights holders is intercepting the water that is destined for the stream as baseflow. Baseflow is the part of streamflow that results from groundwater discharge into the stream system, as opposed to runoff.
A model was created by an expert modeler using the best science available. It makes projections of groundwater discharged into the stream system of the Rattlesnake Creek and how it changes over time. A very significant decline in baseflows has been occurring over the years since 1970 when irrigation developed in the area. The reductions are resulting in Quivira not getting the water it needs when it needs it.
The model also predicts future trends in terms of the groundwater system and its interaction with the stream system.
“Not only do we have significant depletion historically, but at the current level of pumping in the basin is essentially going to dry up the stream flows,” Barfield said.
The Quivira National Wildlife Area is a saltwater complex. As the stream dries, water quality declines. At the current levels, not only will the streamflow decline, but the quality of water declines to the point it can’t be used.
Augmentation a possible solution
GMD 5’s first effort to solve the impairment included augmentation, and Barfield said that it is commonly done practice in the west.
“Basically, you find a separate source of water, and you pump it in to replace the places in the streamflow that are leading to the impairment,” Barfield said.
The USFWS looked over the plan, and agreed augmentation would be part of the solution if both the quantity and the quality of water were adequate, but it would only solve half the problem. A reduction in groundwater pumping would still need to be implemented. A 30 percent reduction would be needed just to maintain the level of streamflow that currently exists. With augmentation, a 15 percent reduction in pumping would satisfy the impairment, according to the model.
Water from low capacity wells outside the area of influence is where the proposed water augmentation would come from. One citizen inquired why the Service couldn’t simply buy up water rights close to Quivira and augment its own water, but Barfield reported the quality of the water has been tested and is of poor quality and can’t be used.
Another person asked water being diverted from the R9 Ranch to Hays would have an affect on the impairment. According to Barfield, it has no effect. The R9 Ranch, located in Edwards County, is within the boundaries of GMD 5.
In addition to augmentation, GMD 5 suggested elimination of end guns, focused reduction along the creek, and formation of a Locally Enhanced Management Area, or LEMA.
Ultimately, Barfield rejected the LEMA proposal because it didn’t include key elements necessary to comply with state law.
“They did not include a schedule to complete actions, specific required reductions were not prescribed, and there were no consequences if those actions were not taken,” Barfield said.
Barfield shared briefly a plan his office created to phase in allocations to junior water rights holders. That plan is now on hold, following Moran’s announcement.
Chris Beightel, Water Management Services Program Manager, talked about options to provide flexibility for water users. He suggested a Water Conservation Area.
“What we find most people want is multi-year flexibility,” he said. “They want to be able to use five years of water quantity over five years, so they can use more when it’s a little drier and then save some when it’s a little wetter.”
They also want the ability to move allocations from one water right to another,or to trade them through buying and selling with other folks. Beightel had planned to roll out the system and go through allocation sheets, but noted the tenor of the situation had changed.
A question and answer session followed the formal presentation, lasting for about an hour. A second meeting was scheduled for Monday evening from 7 to 9 p.m. Attendees were encouraged to stay engaged and follow developments.