- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Federal, state and local officials have been trying to hammer out a deal aimed at addressing competing water needs of south-central Kansas irrigators and a national wildlife refuge that’s lost considerable water to area irrigators.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates the Quivira National Wildlife, which has senior rights to water that has long been used by hundreds of surrounding irrigators with junior rights. The federal agency has been asking the state for years to address the issue, but the state has so far refused to administer the refuge’s right to the water.

A 12-year plan that sought voluntary and incentive-based reductions to deal with the problem expired in 2012, without any significant reductions from irrigators. The Fish and Wildlife Service filed a complaint the following year with the state Department of Agriculture, which regulates usage and administers water rights.

The Kansas Division of Water Resources responded late last year with an initial report that found the refuge had been denied more than 3,000 acre-feet in 18 of the 34 years reviewed, “particularly during periods of limited water supply.” The refuge is entitled to about 14,600 acre feet of water a year.

The report said a solution would likely include “long term cuts in groundwater pumping.” The report is not final and is open to public comment through mid-April. A final report and a plan are likely by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, teams from the DWR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the local groundwater management district are working to come up with a compromise solution, but it’s unclear what that would entail.

Gov. Sam Brownback has called for conservation measures to combat declining water resources around the state.

Mike Oldham, manager of the 22,135-acre refuge, said this week that the water is needed to maintain the 7,000 acres of internationally recognized wetlands in Stafford that are a vital stopover for migratory birds along the central flyway between Canada and southern regions.

Oldham said the wetlands have had declining water over the years, and the push for instituting the refuge’s water right is “to maintain the wetlands for the birds. Period.”

In the report issued by the Kansas Division of Water Resources, the agency’s chief engineer, David Barfield, said he concluded from the results of the investigation that “junior groundwater pumping regularly and significantly impairs” the Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to use its water right. He said a solution would likely include “long term cuts in groundwater pumping to stop and reverse the upward trend in depletions.”

Reducing water access to farmers - who are already dealing with limited water - raises considerable concern, said Orrin Feril, district manager for the area’s Big Bend Groundwater Management District Number 5.

“To shut off, to curtail irrigation pumping would be a significant economic impact to these small communities,” Feril said. “So it’s one of those things that the emotions run high because it affects livelihoods and families, and not just the folks that are actively involved with the irrigation.”

Teams from the state U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the local groundwater management district have been working to devise a compromise that could avoid implementing the refuge’s water right and shutting off irrigators, who use the water for crops including corn and alfalfa.

Chris Beightel, program manager for DWR’s Water Management Services, said he was hopeful that local stakeholders could come up “with a solution that they can live with and that satisfies senior water right holders, which is Quivira.”

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