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Responses starting to come after blind-siding lawsuit over water rights comes from Audubon of Kansas

Fran Brownell and Jennifer Stultz
Pratt Tribune
Typical Kansas farm crops, like these soybeans, need groundwater to grow and produce in many south-central Kansas counties. New irrigation restrictions could come for local farmers and ranchers as a result of Audubon of Kansas' recently filed lawsuit about water rights in the Rattlesnake Basin, which lies under several counties, including Stafford, Pratt, Kiowa, Edwards and Reno.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and several Stafford County farmer/rancher landowners responded last week to a Jan. 16 lawsuit filed by Audubon of Kansas regarding water rights for Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.

“The agreement reached last year between the Big Bend Groundwater Management District 5 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will help satisfy the water needs of both Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and local producers,” Moran said when contacted Monday regarding the Audubon suit.

“Any disruption to this voluntary solution could impact hundreds of farmers and ranchers, as well as harm the entire regional economy,” Moran said. “It’s vital that the work continues to fulfill the terms of the agreement to provide the best outcome for both Quivira and the local communities.”

Announcement of the Moran-brokered agreement to resolve a long-standing water rights dispute was made July 25, 2020, at an event at Quivira Refuge hosted by Quivira National Wildlife manager Mike Oldham with Moran among the guests in attendance.

The January 2021 Audubon lawsuit names former U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and other federal and state officials and seeks a declarative judgement and an order of mandamus to restore Quivira water rights.

The July 2020 six-page Memorandum of Agreement between GMD5 and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge outlines plans which include Rattlesnake Augmentation Wellfield as a short-term project and stipulates monitoring of water storage and release operations.

Stafford County rancher/farmer Leah Chadd — who in 2018 spearheaded a grassroots movement to focus on the Quivira Water Rights water rights issue — voiced surprise at the Audubon lawsuit.

“We all made a concerted effort to get this settled and we thought we had a good agreement to move ahead to put augmentation in place,” Chadd said. “Who is really in charge? We had this resolved. Everybody was happy except Audubon.”

Chadd, an active member of the GMD5 water rights group, said she and other group members were disappointed that prior agreements, which had taken years to come about through compromise and many listening sessions, have seemingly been disregarded by new efforts to control groundwater in southcentral Kansas.

Macksville landowner in Stafford County Larry Fenwick said it was too early to give in-depth feedback into what was happening with the Rattlesnake Basin and water rights in response to this new lawsuit from Audobon of Kansas. But he did say the Memorandum of Agreement worked out with all stakeholders under the direction of Moran and Kansas Wildlife and Fisheries Director Aurelia Skipworth just last year was an acceptable solution for all parties involved after years of disagreement.

"Audubon of Kansas was not part of that agreement," he said. "This is a new wrinkle."