For decades, discussions as to the correct solution for water rights involving farmers and ranchers, industry, the community and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge brought the federal government, the state, local leaders and the community together – or apart.
In April 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed a water impairment notice with the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Since then, the Kansas Department of Agriculture and the Big Bend Groundwater Management District 5 have tried to come up with a solution to satisfy both Quivira and the communities surrounding it.
Last week, a notice from the Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Water Resources was sent to residents, businesses and municipalities located in the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge area informing the public of mandatory water restrictions beginning Jan. 1, 2020. The restricted area includes parts of Edwards, Kiowa, Pawnee, Pratt and Stafford counties. Along with the letter, the KDA’s Chief Engineer, Water Commissioner, Assistant Secretary and Water Management Services and Appropriations Program Managers held two meetings on Oct. 21 at the Stafford County Courthouse Annex in St. John.
David Barfield, KDA’s chief engineer, wanted to inform residents of the impending restrictions and their three-year implementation timeframe. More than 400 people showed up to listen to Barfield. But, because of Sen. Jerry Moran’s (R—Kan.) negotiations at the end of last week with Aurelia Skipwith, the nominee to be the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the planned restrictions were placed on hold – for the moment.
“In my meeting with Ms. Skipwith, I explained the need for farmers and ranchers to be able to utilize groundwater in the basin and the importance of agriculture to the regional economy,” Moran wrote in a press release. “This solution should include augmentation of Rattlesnake Creek, voluntary water conservation efforts and maximizing use of the water the refuge currently receives.”
Moran went on to say that Skipwith is committed to working with local stakeholders to find a voluntary solution to satisfy the Quivira water impairment. Although a timeframe was not mentioned, he hopes to pursue commonsense solutions.
“This (announcement) comes as a surprise to us,” Barfield said. “I’m in wait mode; they’re in the driver’s seat now.”
Although the KDA’s plans are on hold, if the service does not come up with a solution they like, they can once again request to secure water and Barfield stands ready to implement his plan.
“The significant reductions in streamflows from junior pumping has led to the regular and significant impairment of Quivira’s water right,” Barfield said. “A 30% reduction in pumping is required to stabilize streamflows.”
Barfield said augmentation needs to be developed quickly, regardless of the path forward.
Big Bend GMD5 is ready to implement augmentation. That was a part of the proposal they gave to Barfield. They also want to remove end guns and have a voluntary decrease in pumping. Barfield rejected this proposal in late July as it did not have set timeframes and no required reduction in water use. But, both parties agree augmentation, which is bringing water from one area to another, is a strong part of the solution.
Barfield said with augmentation there would still need to be a minimum decrease by 15% in pumping.
Big Bend GMD5 members disagree. GMD5 covers Barton, Edwards, Kiowa, Pawnee, Pratt, Reno and Rice counties.
“The only way to get the water is to augment it,” said former Big Bend GMD5 board member and farmer, Kent Lamb. “It’s a timing thing.”
Because one cannot predict the weather, the water needs of Quivira vary, as they do in the rest of the region.
The executive director of Stafford County Economic Development, Carolyn Dunn, said according to the Kansas Geological Survey report in March 2018, pumping needs to be reduced by 2% for sustainability in GMD5 based on the last dozen years of water level and water use data.
“Quivira National Wildlife Refuge is a man-made entity,” Dunn said. “It consists of man-made canals supplying various man-made ponds. Waterways have filled in with silt and excessive vegetation.”
When Barfield was asked by an audience member about the Service’s conservation plans, he said they were out of date, and he has requested that they update them. He believes they are from around 2000.
Also, when Barfield was asked about invasive trees he said they are being removed above the reserve. But he did not say the trees were being removed from inside the reserve.
Darryl Wood, who is on the board of Big Bend GMD5, said they spent $750,000 on information and modeling from a nationally recognized groundwater company out of New Mexico. Both GMD5 and KDA utilized the same modeling tool.
Wood said the person who did the modeling recommended augmentation.
“Our expert hydrologist (the person who modeled the area) has a different interpretation of the results,” the manager of the Big Bend GMD5, Orrin Feril said. “My view is if someone were to know how to run and interpret the model, the model’s author would be the person to know.”
If KDA’s restrictions were to be implemented, Dunn said the economic impact would be at least $325 million a year in reduction of crop and animal agriculture.
“The ripple effect could approach $750 million,” she said. “It would fuel further population decline and consolidation of schools and businesses.”
When Barfield was asked about the economic factors of his plans that would affect the region, he said they did not factor in.
“It’s a very real impact to not just irrigated agriculture, but to all aspects in our rural counties,” Feril said.
Although there is not a solution at hand, and many are shocked by Barfield’s plans, they are encouraged by Moran’s stay.
“We are encouraged with the news we are having form Washington, D.C.,” Feril said. “Any dialogue that can be had in the public venue is good for moving this forward.”