Kansas farm irrigation still hinders Quivira National Wildlife Refuge water rights

Regulators find groundwater pumping upstream from Stafford County refuge is impairing the sanctuary

By: - August 24, 2023 8:55 am
A flock of green-winged teal settle on the marsh at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

A flock of green-winged teal settle on the marsh at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. (Rachel Laubhan/USFWS)

TOPEKA — The Quivira National Wildlife Refuge received insufficient amounts of water in two out of every three years between 2008 and 2021, a report by Kansas regulators found.

The report updates a more thorough analysis from 2016 that found farm irrigation upstream from Quivira was infringing on the refuge’s water rights. That followed a complaint by the federal government in 2013.

“We’re 10 years in … and there’s still no promise of certain action,” said Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park.

The Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is home to rare inland marshes that rely on water from Rattlesnake Creek. The refuge in Stafford County is a vital stopping point for hundreds of species of migratory birds.

Quivira holds a state water right, entitling it to more than 14,000 acre-feet of water each year. And establishment of that water right in 1957 makes it a more senior user than many farms in the region, giving it higher priority to water flows. But crop irrigation means Quivira doesn’t always get the water it should.

“The bottom line is still that the senior right is being impaired,” Earl Lewis, the state’s chief engineer, told the Kansas House Water Committee. 

The wildlife refuge highlights the continual tension between agricultural and conservation interests in Kansas where, in some areas, minimal rainfall means residents and farmers rely on subsurface groundwater. Similar challenges exist in far-western Kansas where irrigation has been depleting the Ogallala Aquifer for decades.

Irrigation upstream from Quivira reduces the amount of groundwater that flows into Rattlesnake Creek and becomes surface water. The creek flows into the refuge, which contains more than 22,000 acres of grass and sand prairies and inland marshes. It was established almost 70 years ago to protect habitat for birds that migrate through the middle of the country, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes it as an “oasis of the Great Plains.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in February filed a “request to secure water” with the Kansas Department of Agriculture, a process by which senior water right holders can request that the state require junior water right holders to reduce their usage.

It’s the third time in a decade the federal wildlife agency has filed a request to secure water for the refuge.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, criticized the agency’s request in a statement in February.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to submit a request to secure water for Quivira National Wildlife Refuge creates significant challenges, uncertainty and unpredictability for farmers and ranchers and impedes the voluntary efforts made to satisfy the needs of both the refuge and the local economy,” Moran said.

Following the service’s complaint, Lewis notified water users in the area that the state would have to update its previous investigation that found in 2016 that farmers upstream from Quivira were pumping enough water to “regularly and significantly impair the service’s ability to use its water right.”

At the same time, wildlife nonprofit Audubon of Kansas has sued in state district court to protect the refuge’s wildlife.

The tension between agricultural, industrial and conservation water users dominated a hearing Tuesday of the House Water Committee.

Orrin Feril, who runs Groundwater Management District 5, which covers portions of eight counties in south-central Kansas, said the district has been working proactively since 2016 to address the issue. It proposed establishing a “local enhanced management area,” or LEMA, to reduce water usage in the area, but the state’s chief engineer — Lewis’ predecessor David Barfield — rejected the plan, saying it didn’t meet the requirements of a LEMA. 

Feril said the district has a draft plan for the area that he could not yet share because it’s a federal project.

In a letter to the federal agency in April, Feril and the district’s board president, Darrell Wood, said they were “troubled” by the request to secure water as the two organizations “have been working together diligently in good faith to address the claimed impairment.” The district requested the service withdraw it. 

“Leaving it in place will harm any and all cooperative efforts moving forward by diverting the focus on the adversarial proceedings to ensue from the request to secure,” Feril and Wood wrote.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.