A bitter and heated fight over water rights in central Kansas has cooled a bit after the announcement that Quivira National Wildlife Refuge will not issue a request for water in 2020. The action relieves David Barfield, Kansas Division of Water chief engineer, of the legal obligation to immediately administer junior water rights to solve an impairment complaint. It also gives water users in the Big Bend Groundwater Management District 5 more time to find a local answer to a sticky problem.
The reprieve comes, however, with a high level of pressure and a need to make changes that solve problems in an expedient manner. Water users in GMD 5 are acutely aware that administration of junior rights is still on the table if the impairment of Quivira’s senior right continues and nothing happens to resolve it.
GMD 5 has completed several hydrological studies that support the idea that drilling wells in the area south of the refuge and pumping water into Rattlesnake Creek to augment streamflow will provide the refuge with the 3,000 to 5,000 acre feet needed to solve the impairment, according to board chairman Darrell Wood.
The cost of building that infrastructure will be borne by the water users of the district and the price tag will not be small, Wood says. He expects the project to cost between $10 and $15 million.
“I’m 63 and I’ve never been involved in anything as ugly as this is now,” Wood says. “We need to slow up and find a solution that works for everybody without seriously damaging anyone. We think our plan to use augmentation wells to add the streamflow of Rattlesnake Creek will work. But that price tag is steep, and we need assurance that as we ask our users to take on that expense that we aren’t going to see measures that will drastically reduce their income.”
That kind of assurance may be hard to come by. Water authorities say that much depends on what kind of weather the region experiences in the coming year. If the current wet pattern persists, it is likely that the refuge will not see an urgent need to request water. If the weather turns to a dry pattern in the late winter, spring and summer, though, there could very well be a serious issue by the fall migratory bird season in 2020 that could trigger a call for water early in 2021.
The augmentation plan that GMD 5 thinks is the best hope for resolving the impairment with minimal impact on irrigation farmers is just in the early stages of engineering studies, and Earl Lewis, director of the Kansas Water Office, says he thinks it is likely that completing the studies, drilling the wells and establishing the infrastructure of augmentation could easily take two to three years.
Kent Moore, who farms in Pratt County, says GMD 5 has done extensive work, including developing a hydrologic model of the whole basin, and it is clear that there is no scarcity of groundwater, which makes the augmentation model a likely success.
“We have been irrigating here for decades,” Moore says. “The water table fluctuates from very dry years to wet years, but recharge is not really a problem. It’s not a groundwater scarcity issue; it’s a streamflow issue. Groundwater resources are very plentiful. We are definitely blessed because that gives us the water supply to do augmentation successfully.”
Moore says he believes that there will be a need for conservation efforts on the part of irrigators and that many of them have already implemented best management practices that have cut pumping from many irrigation wells to levels well below the fully authorized appropriation for the water right of that well.
“People have already been conserving,” he says. “They will continue to do that because it saves money on pumping costs and inputs. Conservation of water is always at the front of the producer’s mind, largely because he wants the resource to be there in the future and using water as efficiently as possible is the best business decision. I think the issue with Quivira is a problem of timing. When we hit a dry cycle, then the farmers need to pump more and the streamflow in the creek drops from both the lack of runoff and pumping. It is in those times that I think augmentation of the streamflow would work to solve the problem.”
He says, however, that he also understands the concerns of some farmers living in the augmentation area who are concerned that pumping from the freshwater reservoir of the region could change the dynamics of that reservoir and cause an upwelling of the deeper deposits of salt water, potentially contaminating livestock and domestic wells.
“That’s a real concern, and I think that GMD 5 and the area at large realizes that that,” he says. “We absolutely know that an augmentation project has to be done in a manner with the best knowledge and technology to make sure those concerns are recognized and addressed and that the project is done correctly to make sure those problems don’t occur.”
Big economic hit
Moore says that he believes the proposed direct administration of junior water rights — now on hold — would cause “serious economic consequences” if implemented. He says his farm would see a little over a third of its appropriation cut and would have a drastic impact on his farm. He also believes it would cause a reduction of land values, tax base and revenues to the county and school districts.
“It would have an impact on what we do and how we do it,” he says. “And it would definitely affect the tax base. Just from my own farm, I know that the taxes I pay on a quarter of irrigated land versus a quarter of dryland cropland is significant. The irrigated is 3 or 4 times the rate of the dryland. It’s not just my balance sheet. It’s local schools and towns and businesses that are hurt.”
Moore says he is optimistic that knowledge of economic impact and evidence that augmentation will largely solve the issue will bring about a resolution that works for the refuge and for farmer in the region.
“I’m really optimistic that is all going to work out. I think the solution is out there and it can benefit the refuge and at the same time realize and respect the foundational role of irrigated agriculture to the economy of this region,” he says.
He says he is aware of success stories in water reduction — such as the Sheridan Six in northwest Kansas — but he is worried that the success won’t be replicated in the shallow, sandy soils of central Kansas. Even if farmers find a way to emerge with minimal losses, he says, the same may not be true of agricultural support businesses and rural towns.
“Even if farmers manage to plant lower plant populations, change crops, use less inputs and hold their bottom line, I worry for the businesses that rely on selling seed, fertilizer, herbicides, irrigation equipment and fuel will still be hurt,” he says. “That’s the businesses that support rural towns. It’s like CRP in a lot of ways. Even if farmers are able to break even, the economy that supports production won’t survive.”
Wood says he is confident that GMD 5 will commit to the augmentation program’s price tag if they can be sure that there won’t be reductions in the water rights that enable them to be confident of their production ability.
“We’re willing to make a commitment to a $10 to $15 million project, but we have to know that we are going to have the income we need to generate to support that. We need our land values to hold up. At a land auction a week ago, a more junior type number got a top bid of only $2,340 an acre and the family did a ‘no-sale’ because they knew that it should have sold for twice that. The question of whether irrigation will still be there is already having an impact.”