STAFFORD – Thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl migrating through Quivira each season know they can count on respite and water at the salt marshes here.

And Quivira officials want to make sure it stays that way.

But a decades-long struggle continues between providing enough water for the ancient basins that are part of a national refuge and the irrigators who surround it.

Since the late 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been expressing concerns about the diminished flows in the Rattlesnake Creek, which runs into the Stafford County wetlands.

But after years of trying to work with stakeholders to find solutions, the service in April 2013 filed impairment with the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Its 1957 water right is senior to roughly 95 percent of the basin’s water users.

“We’re not receiving the water based on the seasonal needs of wildlife and habitat,” said Mike Oldham, Quivira’s manager.

The creek’s flow has diminished over the years. But Quivira still depends on water – especially at different times of the year to grow food, cover resources and provide wetland water – and this overlaps with agricultural needs.

The state ag department’s Division of Water Resources has been investigating the impairment claim since 2013 and, in December, published its initial findings.

The entire impairment file is available online. It includes Quivira’s original 1957 permit application, emails back and forth from DWR staff and FWS, reports and letters from the past 50 years, as well the the impairment letter. DWR Chief David Barfield’s impairment report is also on the department website.

The findings indicate junior water right pumping impairs Quivira by between 3,000 and 5,000 acre feet a year – depending on the year and season, said Chris Beightel, the state Ag Department’s Division of Water Resources water management services program manager.

Beightel said the basin has 1,680 groundwater rights in all. About 1,599 are junior to Quivira.

The impairment isn’t final – and state officials are still taking public comment on the report, which has been extended through April 15, said Beightel.

Meanwhile, state officials are meeting with the refuge, district and stakeholders. The next meeting is Wednesday in Manhattan, said Lane Letourneau, DWR’s water appropriation program manager. They hope to have a stakeholder-submitted plan by Aug. 15.

“We can’t let this languish,” said Letourneau, later adding, “It is our job to protect any private property right.”

Winding river

Rattlesnake Creek is a 95-mile tributary that starts in Kiowa County and flows to the Arkansas River.

It also goes through the middle of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

Quivira covers 22,135 acres, largely in Stafford County. Roughly 6,000 acres is wetlands.

“Having the available wetlands is a haven to migratory birds, and timing is everything,” said Oldham, adding, “Water depth is a big deal, too – especially in the spring for shorebirds with short legs that need shallower water.”

He estimates a million birds come through the area in the fall and winter. Also, last fall, 61 endangered whooping cranes stopped over.

Quivira’s present certified water permit allows up to 14,600 acre feet of water to be diverted, according to the impairment letter filed in April 2013. Over the years, the Rattlesnake Creek stream flow has declined – largely due to overappropriation of the district, according to the letter.

Oldham said water users and Quivira management have been meeting for nearly three decades to resolve the issue.

Big Bend Groundwater Management District No. 5 members, in cooperation with DWR and FWS, implemented a management plan in 2000, but limited pumping reductions were achieved, said DWR’s Beightel.

Drought was one of the biggest reasons goals weren’t met, said Darrell Wood, board president of GMD 5 and an Edwards County farmer who also has both junior and senior water rights in the Rattlesnake Creek basin.

Wood said as part of the plan, the district purchased water rights and idled them. There also was some limited success with removal of irrigation end guns, as well as other programs. But some of the programs required state funding, which never materialized.

“We were on a pretty good track until 2011,” Wood said. “We had the 150-year drought, and through the assistance of DWR’s emergency drought term permits, we pumped probably 130 percent of our appropriations in that one year.”

The state issued the drought term permits due to the extensive drought that year, which allowed producers to extend their water quantity in 2011 but account for it in 2012.

Debate continues

One of the initiatives outlines in the Rattlesnake management plan but not implemented was augmentation. In 2015, Kansas lawmakers passed legislation allowing augmentation to be utilized within the specific Rattlesnake Creek basin.

Augmentation is a tool that could be used, Letourneau said. The idea is to take water from an untapped area near Quivira where the water isn’t necessarily fit for irrigation because of its salinity. Water quality, however, would have to match what is flowing into the refuge.

Federal officials, however, aren’t keen on that plan.

“We must restate that the service still has fundamental issues with using groundwater pumping to resolve a problem created by pumping,” Megan Estep, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s division of water resources chief, stated in a letter to Kansas’ water chief, David Barfield.

She added the service also questions the time, cost and logistics of developing and operating augmentation wells. The document is part of the public comment report on the division’s website.

Accurate information

Richard Wenstrom, who has implemented many conservation efforts on his own Edwards County farm, noted it was difficult to talk about the situation when there are so many unanswered questions.

Farmers have been implementing best management practices, including no-till and strip-till farming, as well as planting seed varieties that use less water. A Kansas State University study on Wenstrom’s own farm in the 1990s looked at irrigation scheduling in an effort to save water. It developed into an irrigation tool.

Whatever the plan includes, he said, “We want to make sure it makes hydrological and economical sense.”

GMD 5 Manager Orrin Feril said they are using the district’s hydrologic model built in 2010 to make sure the analysis is correct and that all information provided to stakeholders is accurate.

“At the end of the day, we all – from the federal level to local farmer – we need to know what the numbers are,” Feril said. “You always make the best and most informed decisions with good, hard facts, and we want to make sure we have solid numbers to base decisions off of.”

While there has been some contention, Letourneau stressed the idea is that stakeholders “create their own soft landing.”

“We understand it is a pretty sensitive issue,” he said. “We want to mediate this the best we can. We don’t want to get into water-right restrictions. We want them to feel good about their solutions and keep the economy going in that part of the state.”

Meanwhile, Oldham said the refuge has implemented water conservation strategies, especially in the reduction of woody vegetation associated with high water use requirements, such as salt cedar.

Oldham added there were good strategies listed in the 2000 Rattlesnake basin plan to help address the issue.

“Whatever decision we make, it really does need to be about sustainability for the water resource for the basin – not just the refuge,” he said. “We need to be thinking about the water and what that does for the basin and all the users in the basin. We don’t want to get 20 years from now and the situation is worse.”