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A federal agency backs off a push to take water from Kansas farmers for a wildlife refuge

This photo shows a sign at Quivira Wildlife Refuge that notes the presence of rare whooping cranes using these wetlands during their annual migrations.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
/
Kansas News Service
A sign at Quivira Wildlife Refuge notes the presence of rare whooping cranes that use these wetlands during their annual migrations.

Quivira's marshes have a legal right to water. Kansas has never enforced it, because doing so would hurt farmers who use the water for crop irrigation.

Water shortages are battering some of the Great Plains’ most important wetlands, while decades-long arguing continues over what to do about it.

Kansas politicians, farmers and community leaders pressed the federal government this month to drop its call for Kansas to uphold a state law guaranteeing water for Quivira Wildlife Refuge.

The federal government’s demand would in practice have required farmers to irrigate their crops less.

Marshes here and elsewhere in central Kansas remain largely dry after more than a year and a half of intense drought.

This complicates yet another migration season for more than 1 million birds — including endangered whooping cranes — that rely on these wetlands as a critical resting and feeding place during migration each fall and spring.

But that water is also in demand for crops that fuel the local economy.

So when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed paperwork earlier this year to push a Kansas state agency into securing water for Quivira, a backlash followed.

Cities, counties and school districts begged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider. Making farmers use less water would devastate the region, they warned.

“In this rural area, there simply is not another source of commerce that would replace that revenue,” they wrote to the federal agency. And no government program would be able to stimulate the area’s economy enough to make up for the losses.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Republican Sen. Jerry Moran added their voices to the chorus, and this month the federal agency backed down.

Audubon of Kansas — which is fighting in court to protect Quivira — won’t comment on the development but may have seen it coming.

Just a few weeks earlier, the group wrote to the Fish and Wildlife Service and urged it to stay the course despite intense public and political pressure.

“We understand that the Service has been meeting with private irrigation interests, KDA-DWR (the Kansas Division of Water Resources), and political staffers who oppose the protection of the Refuge,” the group said.

The group wrote that it was “all too easy to see the same patterns emerging” that led the Fish and Wildlife Service to drop a previous attempt to secure water in 2019.

Audubon of Kansas is suing in state court, effectively seeking the action that the federal government just backed away from.

Under Kansas state law, Quivira’s water needs take legal priority over 95% of other water users in the area.

This is because Kansas law takes a first-come, first-serve approach. The longest-established water users get first dibs when supplies run low. Quivira’s water rights date to the early 1960s.

If Audubon of Kansas wins its case, the Kansas Division of Water Resources would have to act to uphold that law.

The group sued in federal court, too, but a judge dismissed that case and an appeals court agreed.

A decades-long saga

This fall’s developments are just the latest chapter in a long story.

Federal wildlife officials have complained since the 1980s that the wetlands about 30 miles west of Hutchinson weren’t getting their legal share of water from Rattlesnake Creek.

A decade ago, Kansas began investigating the cause.

A photo shows a saltmarsh at Quivira Wildlife Refuge, dry during bird migration season last November. The area continues to experience drought.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
/
Kansas News Service
A saltmarsh at Quivira Wildlife Refuge lies almost entirely dry during bird migration season last November. The refuge has very little water this fall, too.

The Division of Water Resources concluded that other consumers pumped so much aquifer water in the area — mostly to irrigate crops — that Quivira got shortchanged in 26 out of the 34 years that the division reviewed.

This is because groundwater is critical to Rattlesnake Creek. It bubbles up and spills into the waterway. But the hundreds of wells in the region deplete the amount that ever reaches the creek.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and local water users have long talked through possible solutions.

This year, the federal agency seemed convinced that collaboration had failed.

It told Kansas it had cooperated with local stakeholders for more than 25 years without success. The only option left, it said, is to request that the state’s Division of Water Resources make local water users pump less water.

The local groundwater management district disagreed. It said analyses were ongoing to see if building wells to pump aquifer water to the wetlands would help – and said that it has spent about $4 million over the years on exploring and preparing options such as this.

Rattlesnake Creek and Quivira lie above groundwaters that include the Great Bend Prairie Aquifer. Water levels in this branch of the massive eight-state High Plains Aquifer are relatively stable compared to the more famous and rapidly dwindling Ogallala branch farther west.

The federal agency has supported exploring the option of pumping groundwater into Quivira. But even if the idea proves feasible, it said earlier this year, the proposal wouldn’t fully address the refuge’s water shortage.

Still — just as in 2019 — the Fish and Wildlife Service backed down. It agreed to continue with talks instead of pushing Kansas to mandate less irrigation.

This means that Kansas won’t make farmers near Quivira reduce their groundwater pumping in 2023 and 2024. The federal agency suggested it would seek action for 2025 if a solution doesn’t emerge before then.

The Kansas Farm Bureau praised Kelly and Moran for their work toward “a durable resolution to the water situation.”

The local groundwater district acknowledges the matter isn’t over.

“This is not a relief from resolving this issue,” Groundwater Management District No. 5 wrote on its website and expressed determination to find a fix based on “the best science available while respecting the local economy and applicable laws.”

How wetlands became rare

On paper, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge has the right to 14,600 acre-feet per year from Rattlesnake Creek. To visualize that volume: It is enough to cover Quivira’s 7,000 acres of wetland in water two feet deep.

The creek’s annual flow into the refuge, though, often comes up at least 20 percent short because of well pumping.

Dry years like 2022 and 2023 exacerbate the tension between economic and environmental interests. The area surrounding Quivira is experiencing severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

A photo shows sandhill cranes flying over Quivira last November. Tens of thousands of them show up each year. Rare whooping cranes also pass through.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
/
Kansas News Service
Sandhill cranes fly over Quivira last November. Tens of thousands of them show up each year. Rare whooping cranes also pass through.

And climate change may bring dry years more frequently. Some studies have found the central Plains are becoming more arid, meaning central Kansas would become more like the already drier western Kansas, where many farmers depend on the shrinking Ogallala.

Meanwhile, wetlands have become particularly sensitive areas of conservation in recent decades.

The United States once offered far more wetlands for migrating birds. For more than a century, the federal government encouraged — and in many cases subsidized — their destruction to increase the amount of land available for farming and other uses.

Most of the nation’s wetlands — marshes, bogs, swamps, wet meadows, prairie potholes and more — disappeared. This fueled agricultural and economic development, but exacerbated flooding and erosion, released greenhouse gasses and squeezed wildlife populations.

Iowa and Missouri lost more than 85% of their wetlands, researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found. Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado lost more than 50%.

In central and western Kansas, thousands of wet acres near McPherson vanished, as did many of the High Plains’ playa lakes.

In recent decades, the federal government changed course by ending policies that were draining as many as half a million wetland acres per year — and launching efforts to protect and restore wetlands.

Quivira and the nearby Cheyenne Bottoms basin, the country’s largest inland wetland, are today Wetlands of International Importance recognized under an international treaty.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees Quivira. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks manages about half of the Cheyenne Bottoms basin 40 miles away.

On a single day last fall, observers spotted about one-tenth of the world’s total whooping crane population feeding and resting at the two locations.

Conservationists have spent decades trying to save these cranes from extinction, increasing the species from just 21 birds in 1941 to several hundred today.

Audubon of Kansas holds an annual celebration each November at Quivira while the birds pass through. And it has poured undisclosed funds into lawsuits for Quivira.

“At great cost, AOK has fought for the Refuge — because the Service would not do so,” executive director Jackie Augustine wrote to the agency last month. “(We) urge you to continue to place your legal obligations above private interests.”

An update on Cheyenne Bottoms

The current fight over water rights at Quivira doesn’t affect Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area. The state made some farmers cut irrigation dramatically starting in the 1990s to protect streams that feed into these wetlands.

But the current drought is so bad that only about 2,000 of its acres are wet. That’s better than last fall, but normal years offer five times as much wetland.

That means the massive flocks of water birds passing through this time of year are competing for less food.

“That’s probably the most concerning part,” said Jason Wagner, public lands manager of the wildlife area. “The food’s not gonna last real long with limited flooded vegetation.”

Wagner said the drought has at least allowed workers better access to areas that are usually wet, so that they can pull invasive plants and improve the habitat.

As a result, Cheyenne Bottoms will be in better shape to feed native wildlife when rains return and the wetlands refill.

He is thankful for a downpour in early August that brought the little water Cheyenne Bottoms has currently.

The creeks are again dry, but he remains hopeful that more precipitation will materialize soon to help fall migrants.

“The weather pattern is bound to break one of these days and we’ll get water,” Wagner said. “It can still happen.”

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is the environment reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.