Purchase photos

Ranchers: City hoarding water

8/6/2012

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Cattle long have been able to find enough water to quench their thirst in Big Creek as it snakes its way through the historic Philip Ranch east of Hays.

Except in 1956, when the granddaddy of modern droughts settled in over Kansas.

That's according to Sandy Sprague, who, as a little girl, recalls her father talking of the days when Big Creek ran dry.

To be sure, Big Creek was reduced to pockets of water in 2006, when drought settled on the area once again.

This year's drought, however, is forcing Mike and Sandy Sprague to scramble to find water for cattle, turning instead to water wells rather than the brackish, green-tinged puddles existing now.

That's a concern for Sandy Sprague, who does double duty as a veterinarian.

"There's the quality of the water that's there because it's not running," she said. "That concerns me too, the quality of water."

The Spragues aren't alone in their struggles to cope with a loss of water. That's the way it is everywhere downstream of Hays, all the way to the confluence of the Smoky Hill River.

The city of Russell, for example, has abandoned its Big Creek water supply this year because there's simply no water in the river.

Farmers and ranchers along Big Creek point to a decision by the city of Hays to hold onto every drop of water it can, rather than let it flow out of the wastewater treatment plant back into Big Creek.

Instead, water from both Big Creek and the Smoky Hill River is redirected into pipelines that water ballfields or is pumped into a holding pond at Fort Hays Municipal Golf Course for use there or nearly a mile away at the new sports complex.

The Spragues struggle to understand how water for a sports complex or golf course can have a higher priority than water to keep a cattle herd alive.

But that's the way the law works, so they've been told by state water officials.

While Hays is expected to return water it takes from Big Creek for use downstream, that's on an annual basis. As a result, most of the water is returned -- including that from the Smoky Hill River -- during winter months when grass isn't actively growing.

"The reality of it is, at the worst time, we're putting Big Creek and Smoky water back in the river," said Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty.

There's "very little" water the city of Hays is allowing to bypass the wastewater plant, he said.

But, he's quick to point out, "we have no flow coming in to the city."

Water being held by the city is used to water grass at the golf course, Larks Park and the soccer complex.

The city of Hays uses roughly 2,100 acre-feet of water annually -- likely more this year because of the drought. That's nearly 685 million gallons of water, nearly evenly split from Smoky and Big Creek water.

About a third of the city's water use comes in June, July and August.

Returning the water now, he said, likely would be futile because of how dry the river bed is and the sheer amount of water cottonwood trees would soak up as the water moved downstream.

"As a practical matter, the law allows us to retain water," he said.

"I think it should be daily," Mike Sprague said of returning water to Big Creek. "If they pump water today, they should let it go back out."

For the Spragues, the loss of Big Creek is a big hit.

"Big Creek is the biggest single natural resource on the ranch," Mike Sprague said.

"The ranch was built on the river," Sandy Sprague said.

It's been suggested they take Hays to court to see where a judge might place the priority -- on grass or on cattle.

Mike Sprague thinks that's sheer folly.

"In fact, if we were to sue Hays," he said, "we would be paying for their legal defense. Every time we go to Hays, we will be paying money in to their legal defense.

"So they can take our water."

He said that because the city of Hays imposes a half-cent sales tax, the proceeds from which go into the city's water department. Currently, Hays has nearly $21 million in cash from that sales tax.

"If there were people in Hays who didn't get water out of the faucet to get a drink, that would be one thing," Sprague said of the water situation.

Instead, he's critical of the city's push to water grass that isn't native to the area.

Dougherty said conditions have turned dire enough that watering has been reduced, and some grasses are being allowed to go dormant.

"I understand that it causes issues downstream," he said. "But it's one of the things I'm not going to apologize for. We do release some water into Big Creek. We don't have the spigot running 24 hours a day."

"We're not going to spend money to fight something that's probably a worthless cause," Mike Sprague said of taking Hays to court. "And even if we would, we would not get water this summer. So we're spending money trying to develop another well."

The Spragues are working to develop a network of wells and pipelines to supply different pastures.

"These things could have been developed over time," he said. "If the creek wasn't here, these things would have been developed.

"The creek has always run during our lifetime. So you expect it to run. It's something you take for granted; you see it every day of your life."

Water, he said, is the greatest limiting resource for ranching.

"If you don't have water, it doesn't matter how much grass you have," Sprague said.

"We're doing everything we can within the law," Dougherty said of the city's approach to using water. "I understand there's people downstream that feel it's negatively impacting them. There's always somebody downstream during a drought that thinks there's somebody upstream causing a problem."