Audubon of Kansas files lawsuit to secure water for wildlife refuge

    A spectacular sunset sets the waters of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge ablaze in November 2014. (Submitted by Mike Umscheid to Kansas Reflector)

    TOPEKA — Audubon of Kansas has filed a lawsuit against federal and state authorities for failing to protect water rights for the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Kansas.

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December determined there was no need to secure water rights for the refuge because federal, state and local agencies had struck a deal with agriculture producers to manage the amount of water they pull from Rattlesnake Creek.

    The refuge is a nonprofit environmental organization that covers 22,135 acres of land southeast of Great Bend, mostly in Stafford County. The wetland provides sanctuary for the endangered Whooping Crane as it migrates annually between Canada and the Gulf Coast, as well as other endangered and threatened waterfowl and birds.

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service secured water rights for the refuge in 1957, but Audubon of Kansas in its federal lawsuit says decades of excessive groundwater pumping by nearby irrigators “damaged and desiccated the refuge, seriously harming its hydrological integrity and threatening its survival as a functioning groundwater-dependent ecosystem.”

    A 2016 report by the state’s chief engineer for water resources confirmed excessive water pumping and related damages over a 34-year period. Jackie McClaskey, the secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture under former Gov. Sam Brownback, issued repeated written statements that the state would not protect the refuge’s water rights.

    In July, after a year of negotiations that involved U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, stakeholders announced they had reached a deal that shifts the location of water rights so that farmers can continue to draw water from the Rattlesnake basin. The refuge benefits from the removal of invasive tree species.

    The Audubon lawsuit asks the court to compel federal and state authorities to secure water rights for the refuge. Defendants include Kansas Department of Agriculture secretary Mike Beam; Earl Lewis, the agriculture department’s chief engineer for water resources; and officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.