ST. JOHN — Water — who gets to use it, when and how — sparks fights all over the world.
The latest battleground is in south-central Kansas, near the federally operated Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
In its simplest form, it’s a clash between the refuge, which isn’t getting its legal share of water, and the local farmers who may be forced to cut back on how much water they use on their crops.
The stakes are clear. Wendy Mawhirter, who farms wheat, corn and soybeans near the refuge, said her family “wouldn’t have as much money.”
“Our schools wouldn’t be as good. Our little grocery story might shut down,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to buy machinery.”
But for the refuge, water is “irreplaceable,” according to manager Mike Oldham.
“You can’t put it back there,” he said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
But both recognize the issue is not that simple.
A matter of seniority
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1955, a vast and sprawling wetland area greater than 22,000 acres. It’s a key stop for hundreds of species of migrating birds.
On a freezing Saturday morning in November, Audubon of Kansas Executive Director Ron Klataske led two vans full of people on a tour of the refuge. The group, as well as dozens of others standing on the edge of Big Salt Marsh, hoped to catch a glimpse of one of only about 400 whooping cranes still alive. The sounds of thousands of sandhill cranes filled the air.
“This is one of the few places and one of the most consistent places where you can see whooping cranes in migration,” Klataske said.
That salt marsh is filled mostly by water from Rattlesnake Creek. And the refuge’s right to water from the creek is one of the oldest in the region — dating back to 1957.
In Kansas, seniority is vital when it comes to water rights. In years when water is scarce, the older the right, the more likely you’ll get water before it runs out.
In the 1980s, the refuge started saying it wasn’t getting all the water it’s entitled to, arguing that too much groundwater was being pumped by farmers and wells. Years of voluntary efforts failed to solve the problem, so in 2013, the refuge filed an official complaint with the Kansas Department of Agriculture, which oversees water rights.
The state spent two years on the investigation before coming to a conclusion.
“In our view, the facts are pretty clear,” Kansas Chief Engineer David Barfield said. “(The refuge is) being impaired and something very significant needs to happen to remedy that.”
The current proposal to fix the problem calls for constructing water wells that the refuge could use to pipe in extra water. It also would cut total groundwater use in the Rattlesnake Creek watershed by 15%.
And here’s where water rights come into play: The reductions for each individual well would be determined based on seniority and historical use.
At public hearings held in St. John, some people argued the cuts are unreasonable because using the water for crops is more valuable than using it at the refuge.
But Barfield said the perceived value doesn’t factor into the decision. While that will be tough for many, he said, he’s legally bound to make sure Quivira gets its water.
That’s little consolation to Mawhirter.
“Quivira doesn’t have to make a living off of their water,” she said. “We do.”
Mawhirter said she likes having the wildlife refuge nearby, but the current proposed water cuts are unfair. She’d like to see a few things instead: including people who live further south and west in the cuts; having the state find more creative solutions, such as diverting water from the nearby Arkansas River; and having the refuge better manage the water it does get.
The delayed response
State officials were planning to implement the water cuts Jan. 1, but Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran lobbied U-S Fish and Wildlife Service leadership this fall to pause the request and go back to the negotiating table.
Oldham said they’ll do what they can, but added there’s not going to be an easy solution; if there was, the problem would have already been figured out.
If negotiations fail, the issue will likely end up in court, though Barfield thinks it’s in the water users’ best interest to find a solution before that.
With all of the available data, the courts will likely decide to simply shut off water to a large group of junior rights holders to ensure the more senior Quivira gets its water.
The state has other ways to meet the needs of more junior users, like voluntary reductions in water use, he said. Plus, reductions like he’s proposed have precedent in Kansas, especially in far western Kansas, where self-imposed ones appear to be slowing the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer.
“We have seen in various parts of the state and the west, irrigators adapt,” Barfield said. “And they adapt very well.”
But with such high stakes, tension between Quivira and other water rights holders is high, said Quivira manager Oldham. He’s worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 27 years and said the last few have been the most stressful he can remember.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re not liked, but there’s less tolerance for us,” he said. “It’s not a really comfortable place to be right now.”
He said he isn’t trying to hurt anyone, but he has a job to do. Sometimes that’s worth taking a stand.
“You’ve got birds that have been coming here for the last millenia,” he said. “How do you just say 60 to 70 years from now it’s not going to be there anymore?”