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The Quivira water rights danceThe Quivira water rights dance

Cowtowns and Skyscrapers: Pitting birds against farmers in the worst game of musical chairs is a losing proposition for all.

Jennifer M. Latzke

October 13, 2023

4 Min Read
redheaded woodpecker on trunk of cottonwood tree
TAKING IN THE AIR: A redheaded woodpecker sits on a cottonwood tree trunk at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas. milehightraveler/Getty Images

Do you ever feel like you’re caught in a never-ending game of Musical Chairs, circling the same three seats, to the same tune, on repeat?

Around and around you go, until your head is swimming and your lunch is threatening a return appearance?

Yeah, that’s a little what it’s like to try to comprehend and report on water in the state of Kansas. The dance partners never change. The water continues to be a vastly underestimated resource that we continue to attempt to allocate based off 1950s numbers. And we continue to circle to the tune of some faraway environmentalist who has never lived and worked in rural Kansas.

First verse

Take, for example, the ongoing struggle between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the junior water rights holders of the Rattlesnake Creek Basin. The Rattlesnake Creek Basin provides water to the migratory and resident wildlife in the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, managed by USFWS, and which holds the senior water rights.

Now, back in 2020, the USFWS raised a concern over impairment of its senior water rights by irrigators, municipalities and other junior water rights holders in the basin. A compromise was reached between USFWS and the Big Bend GMD (Groundwater Management District) 5 — the parties agreed to work to find a commonsense solution using science to balance the county’s agricultural economy and its human population’s needs with the needs of the wildlife and migratory birds.

Everyone thought the song was over. Time to put the fiddles away, right?

Well, now someone at USFWS decided to tack on another verse. And earlier this year, Director Martha Williams directed the agency to file a Request to Secure Water with the Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Water Resources, citing that Quivira’s senior water rights have been impaired by the junior water rights of the surrounding communities and landowners.

Time to get the fiddle out again.

Repeat the chorus

Friends, I was there in St. John, Kan., at the stakeholder meetings in 2020, and I remember the packed rooms of stakeholders. I remember the emotions in their voices and on their faces as they shared how shutting off their water rights would cripple their farming and livestock production.

Even more troubling was the discussion over the tsunami of economic effects that would roar through St. John and Stafford County if those farmers and ranchers didn’t have access to groundwater rights.

To a bureaucrat in D.C., Stafford County is just lines on a map. They may not be able to fathom a county with no Walmart, a junior-senior high school that averages 100 students, and a county commission with just three seats.

So, I’m sure this move made sense on paper to them, but they didn’t bother to look at the history of the conflict and the repercussions of the actions not just to the birds, but to the people.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., says that nearly 800 junior water rights (agricultural, municipal and industrial use) in the Rattlesnake Basin were at risk of being shut off.

Just a 60% reduction in planted irrigated corn acres in one county, according to Moran’s office, comes to a loss of over $41 million in economic activity. Across the eight GMD 5 counties and including the rest of farm production, that could mean losing $300 million to $500 million a year.

That’s a hit to the local tax base that may not be recoverable. And the state of Kansas could lose as much as $1 billion a year in economic activity if those water rights are lost.

As Moran said in a speech at the Kansas State Fair in September, the state of Kansas spent $898 million to attract the $2.5 billion economic impact of the new Panasonic plant.

“We ought to spend a lot of time and effort to make sure we don’t lose an existing business contributing one-third of the economic benefits of one plant,” he said.

Around and around we go again — same dance, same tune.

Stop the music

Just this week, on Oct. 11, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and Moran announced that through their bipartisan pushback, USFWS has come to an agreement with the KDA to collaborate on a solution to water rights issues in the Rattlesnake Creek Basin. USFWS will conditionally pause its request to secure its senior water right, according to the statement.

The music has paused. Until January 2025.

USFWS, in its letter to the KDA, states that it supports the state in formulating a “working group to develop a collaborative remedy that involves the full participation of the Service [USFWS], the GMD and other stakeholders to develop options that can be implemented starting January 2025.”

But, if the working group doesn’t come up with a collaborative remedy? USFWS will request to secure water for 2025 and beyond.

Friends, in games of musical chairs, when the music stops, someone is left without a chair. That’s winner-take-all.

But there is time, now, to adjust the rules of the game, so to speak, and make compromise and collaboration the goal instead.

Because this is one game where, if there is one winner when the music stops — we all lose.

To keep up on the issue, visit the KDA DIvision of Water Resources page.

Read the letter from USFWS.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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