Kansas had a record-breaking export year in 2022 with red meat protein, cereals, and oil seed as the state’s top three exports. Agriculture generated millions in revenue for the state and continued to sustain the hundreds of rural communities spread out across the plains.
Nevertheless, a significant portion of the farms and ranches driving this industry could soon see their water spigots shut off and croplands dry up.
Hundreds of farms in central Kansas rely on Rattlesnake Creek to irrigate their crops, and so does the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge which is maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The refuge holds a state water right that was established in 1957 and takes precedent over the water rights of many neighboring farms.
Since 2016, reports have found that farm irrigation upstream of Quivira might have resulted in the refuge not receiving the amount of water that it is entitled to through its water rights.
I have been working with local farmers, communities and the FWS to find a solution that both conserves water for the refuge and allows farms in the area to continue operating.
FWS and the Big Bend Groundwater Management District 5 have been operating under a Memorandum of Agreement signed in 2020, which set the parties on a path to finding a science-based commonsense solution that would provide stability to those reliant on water from the Rattlesnake Basin.
However, without prior notice, FWS submitted a request to secure water to the state of Kansas on Feb. 10, 2023. If FWS moves ahead, their action could retire critical junior water rights in the Rattlesnake Basin.
This means nearly 800 water rights may be shut off by FWS’s action. Farm income modeling indicates the loss of irrigation will result in significant damage to the Kansas economy. Using corn growing in Pratt as an example, and knowing agricultural production has a 1.72 multiplier effect on economic output, even a 60 percent reduction in planted irrigated acres of corn will result in over $41 million in lost economic activity. Extrapolating these numbers among commodity and livestock production in all eight GMD5 counties would mean the potential loss of hundreds, if not a billion dollars in lost economic activity. That drop in economic activity also erodes the tax base, lowers school enrollment and harms local businesses.
FWS’s actions will have a negative impact on not just the eight counties making up the Big Bend Groundwater Management District 5 (GMD5) but on the greater agricultural economy, the backbone of our state’s economic activity.
The state of Kansas recently put a significant amount of resources behind showing businesses like Panasonic, Integra, and Hilmar the benefits of building in Kansas. For as important it was for the state to support the estimated $2.5 billion in economic impact derived from the Panasonic project, state leadership cannot ignore the significant contribution to the Kansas economy generated by farmers and ranchers in GMD5.
Given the significant impact to farmers, ranchers, local communities and the state economy, it is critical FWS withdrawal its request for water and adhere to the Memorandum of Agreement established in 2020. Any deviation from that agreement must be collaborate effort between the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the GMD5, and other local stakeholders to preserve the long-term success of the refuge without harming the livelihoods of Kansas farmers and ranchers.