A decade-old battle might soon be resolved – amiably.
With the help of U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, the U.S. government and area farmers and their representatives, an agreement over water rights at Quivira was signed.
"This was the breakthrough we needed," Moran said at a meeting of stakeholders in St. John on July 25. "We want to find common ground."
In April 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed a water impairment notice with the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Since then, the KDA and the Big Bend Groundwater Management District 5 have tried to come up with a solution to satisfy both Quivira, a 22,000-acre, man-made wildlife refuge, and the communities surrounding it.
With the help of the newly appointed director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Aurelia Skipwith, a memorandum of agreement was signed on July 25 in St. John. Skipwith, who was brought up in Indiana, said one of the desires of the Wildlife Service is to be a "good neighbor."
"I know that this has been an ongoing issue for years," Skipwith said to the crowd. "Of most importance is your children and the generations that come behind you."
The next step in the agreement is to conduct environmental testing. Once all parties, including the Environmental Protection Agency, sign off, legal documents will be drawn. Quivira, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Big Bend GMD5 and farmers and ranchers in the area hope this will move quickly. GMD5 covers Barton, Edwards, Kiowa, Pawnee, Pratt, Reno and Rice counties.
The plan is to implement water augmentation, as well as retire water rights out of sensitive areas of the district and move some water rights to less sensitive areas. Also, invasive trees are being removed from Quivira and Rattlesnake Creek, which flows through the community and the reserve.
According to Mark Oldham, the manager of Quivira, there remain approximately 1,000 acres from which to remove these invasive trees that deplete water. He said this agreement provides water for both the refuge and the farmers. Others agree.
"We believe this is a very cost effective and long-term sustainable path," said Orrin Feril, manager of GMD5.
If this agreement had not been reached, farmers would have had to stop irrigating their crops, and the area would have seen a major decrease in population, forcing businesses to close and farmers to give up their land.
The president of the board of Water Protection Association of Central Kansas, Kent Moore, who is also a farmer in Iuka, is affected by regulations incurred by Quivira.
"I’m very pleased that we’re at this point in the process," Moore said. "I’m encouraged for the future. This is the first step; it’s not the final step."
More than 200 bird species, 60 types of butterflies, 400 varieties of plants and 50 different reptiles, amphibians and mammals frequent Quivira. Much of the land is filled with water, making it a desirable stop for migration.
"We want to make sure we are not just regulating," Moran said. "The ability of farmers in central Kansas 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."
If Moran and Skipwith had not stepped in, the economic impact to the region would cause a reduction in agriculture of more than $300 million a year. The ripple effect would have been enormous.
"It’s a lot more optimistic," said Julie Lyon, the mayor of Stafford. "If we lost our water, we would lose our schools, our businesses and our population."