Water district officials in the Rattlesnake Basin reach agreement over rights

Fran Brownell
Pratt Tribune
Water flows in Rattlesnake Creek at Macksville Gauge, part of the Rattlesnake Basin water reserve, on July 25, 2020 in Stafford County.

As of Saturday, July 25, the stage has been set through efforts of Kanas Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Great Bend) to allow farmers and ranchers in Stafford and four neighboring counties to put to rest immediate fears regarding a long-standing water rights issue involving Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

“Senator Moran and the Kansas congressional delegation’s interest and support have been instrumental and they continue to be closely involved in this process,” Big Bend Groundwater Management District 5 Manager Orrin Feril said Monday, July 27.

Sen. Moran was hosted on his visit to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge near Stafford on Saturday afternoon by Quivira Refuge Manager Mike Oldham who also welcomed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith as guest.

“This agreement is the breakthrough we needed,” said Sen. Moran. “The ability of area farmers to make a living determines the future of the communities in central Kansas. This isn’t only about farmers and ranchers. It is about the future of rural communities.”

Moran said he raised concerns regarding the water rights dispute surrounding the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge with Director Skipwith last October, highlighting the need for farmers and ranchers, members of GMD5, to be able to utilize groundwater in the basin.

GMD5 has been heavily involved in the last three years proposing several solutions, including Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs), and submitting numerous proposals to now-retired Kansas Chief Engineer David Barfield, Manhattan, all of which were rejected, Feril said.

Established in 1955 to protect migratory waterfowl in the Central Flyway, Quivera Refuge encompasses 7,000 acres of wetlands and attracts hundreds of thousands of ducks, geese and many species of migrating shorebirds to an area that is also extremely important for agriculture and the regional economy.

Generally, water rights are handled at the state and local government level, according to Sen. Moran.

“But this impairment claim directly involved a federal agency -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Sen. Moran said.

“Director Skipwith committed to working with local stakeholders to find a voluntary solution to satisfy the Quivira water impairment.” Sen. Moran said.

“This is the first step in a long way down the road in building the partnership and collaboration,” said Quivira Refuge Manager Oldham, who has been at the Quivira helm since 2012.

“We’re really trying to identify not, only short term, but also long-term options.”

Oldham said. “Bottom Line, we want to fix the problem one way or another, both short term and long term.”

GMD5 President Darrell Wood of Truesdale chaired a special meeting GMD5 board meeting Friday, July 24, to discuss the proposed Memorandum of Agreement between GMD5 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under the terms of the agreement, from August 2020 to August 2025, GMD5 will design and construct a streamflow augmentation wellfield to supplement Rattlesnake Creek with pumped groundwater.

“Beginning in early fall 2025, the agreement calls for GMD5 to use reasonable efforts to develop a water-right purchase program and water-right movement program to achieve the retirement of 2,500 acre-feet from areas close to the Rattlesnake Creek stream channel,” Feril said.

Also under the terms of the newly-enacted agreement, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will utilize enhanced water management at the Little Salt Marsh to store an additional quantity of water to provide habitat as outlined in the Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Refuge.

“Furthermore, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees to not submit a request to secure water per K.S.A. 82a-706b and K.A.R. 5-4-1 in 2020 and 2021,” Feril said. “The work is not yet complete, but this is a significant milestone in the process.”

Stafford County farmer Leah Chadd, who in 2018 created the non-profit  “Rattlesnake Basin Cause” as grass roots’ effort to protect landowners’ water rights, was among the about a dozen GMD5 members and guests, including Kansas State  Sen. Mary Jo Taylor, attending the Friday, July 24, morning meeting, which was also  conducted as a Zoom session with about 20 participants attending remotely.

GMD5 directors in attendance- -Vice-President Fred Grunder, Prattt County; Treasurer John Janssen, Kiowa County; Kerry Froetschner, Pawnee County; Craig Zwick, Rice County; Marlyn Spare, Stafford County; and Tom Taylor, member-at-large—all endorsed the agreement.

“We’re in a whole lot better situation than we were a year ago,” Wood said. “We’re gratified that Sen. Moran got us back on track.”

“It’s being worked out in an amicable way,” Chadd said of the water rights dispute issue. “But the whole thing should never have happened. The whole impairment issue was not handled properly.”