Irrigators in the Rattlesnake Creek basin with water rights junior to that held by Quivira National Wildlife Refuge will get unfettered access to the water for at least another year.

But absent a settlement acceptable to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, administration of water rights upstream of the refuge could begin in 2018.

“Should an agreement not be reached, we will be obligated to develop an administrative remedy for implementation in 2018 and beyond,” according to a letter signed by Division of Water Resources Chief Engineer David Barfield. “Since it is late in the year and many producers have already made cropping decisions and purchases for the coming year, we will not administer the basin’s impairing water rights during the 2017 irrigation season.”

Irrigators to the west of Quivira already had been allowed to use water this year even though Barfield in late 2015 issued a report finding junior water rights were impairing the more senior water right held by the refuge.

The announcement for 2017 was made in a letter made public Friday along with the proposal from the Big Bend Groundwater Management District No. 5 designed to make the refuge whole again as far as its water right is concerned. The release also included a two-page rejection letter by the federal wildlife agency.

In its proposal, the GMD offered to develop a well and pipeline system to the east of the refuge to provide as much as 1,500 acre feet of water each year.

In his impairment report, Barfield determined annual water use reductions or augmentation of 3,000 to 5,000 acre feet might be needed to make Quivira’s water right whole again.

FWS noted the offer “is half the minimum amount of the 3,000 acre feet the state engineer concluded was needed to relieve the service’s impairment,” a letter from assistant regional refuge director Will Meeks states.

As a result, “we believe our most appropriate recourse is for the service to file a request to secure water with the state of Kansas,” he continued.

Essentially, that’s a reference to a request for administration of junior water rights to ensure Quivira receives its allocation.

Development of a new water source east of the refuge is markedly changed from three previous studies, where the source of water for augmentation proposals came from areas west of the refuge, the GMD’s proposal states.

Augmentation essentially allows the withdrawals from another source of water to replace the quantity of an “unlawful diversion,” according to a 2014 law cited in the proposal.

On Friday, GMD No. 5 Manager Orrin Feril said it was premature to comment on what the plan’s rejection means, pending a board meeting Thursday in Stafford.

In his letter, Barfield again urged a compromise.

“Our final report does not specifically identify a remedy for the impairment,” he said in the letter. “We intentionally did not do this work in favor of fostering constructive and effective dialogue in the basin and between the basin stakeholders and the service. We continue to hold that locally developed solutions are best.”

But he asked for a revised settlement offer by Feb. 15.

Even though it rejected the proposal, the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t close the door on additional discussions, but noted it seeks a resolution that is “fully protective of the interests of the United States.”

Quivira has the right to use up to 14,632 acre feet of surface water from Rattlesnake Creek, a right DWR determined has been adversely affected by the nearly 1,600 junior water rights holders in the river basin. Only about 90 water rights are senior to Quivira’s.

Although the battle over impairment of water rights has been ongoing for 30 years, it was only in 2013 when the federal wildlife agency asked the Division of Water Resources to conduct an impairment study.

Previous efforts to limit water use have had limited success, reducing pumping by 2,804 acre feet. That’s just 10 percent of the goal of 27,346 acre feet of savings that had been planned.