Seeing Eye to Eye
Farmers, Whooping Cranes and Water Conservation in Kansas
A whooping crane could just about stare a person straight in the eye. At five feet, they are North America’s tallest—and one of the world’s rarest—birds. Each year, the singular flock of naturally migrating whooping cranes pauses for food and rest at the inland salt marsh of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in central Kansas.
Balancing the needs of the refuge and the local farming community is all about timing. The refuge needs a large infusion of water from Rattlesnake Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River, to support whooping cranes and hundreds of other bird species during the spring migration season. At the same time, the corn, soybeans and other crops grown in the region require intense irrigation. These competing needs have created some tension; access to water is regulated, and the refuge has priority. Efforts to collaborate and conserve water have occurred, but the results haven’t been enough. Rattlesnake Creek is drying up.
The refuge and farmers each have do-or-die motivations to keep trying to find solutions. The 500 whooping cranes in the migrating group that stops at Quivira represent about 75 percent of the entire population of the species. And the agricultural community is facing a population challenge of its own. “As water becomes scarcer in some areas and farming faces more obstacles, better-paying jobs lure younger generations from their rural homes to urban areas,” says Heidi Mehl, TNC’s healthy streams manager in Kansas.
“It is possible for profitable agriculture to coexist alongside healthy ecosystems,” says Heidi. “TNC saw a chance to prove that here. We began asking, ‘What resources can we bring to help farmers improve water conservation without harming them economically? How can we get significant reductions right away?’”
It is possible for profitable agriculture to coexist alongside healthy ecosystems.
Leveraging TNC’s reputation as a collaborative partner, Heidi and her colleagues formed the Rattlesnake Creek Working Group, which identified short-term, high-impact strategies, including removing invasive trees such as salt cedar and Russian olive that drink more than their fair share of water. A key member of the group is WaterPACK, an agricultural producer organization dedicated to water conservation. “We used our influence to secure a land ownership database from an oil and gas company for the entire scope of work that TNC wanted to address,” says Pat Janssen, a farmer and the current secretary of WaterPACK. “Together, we were able to quickly distribute grant funds to remove invasives because we had shovel-ready projects and willing participants.”
We ran our irrigation system less last year—so much so that our neighbors noticed.
Pat works with his father to grow hay and other crops. He has accessed federal cost-share programs to implement innovative water-saving techniques on his property—another strategy TNC hopes to spread to other farmers. “We ran our irrigation system less last year—so much so that our neighbors noticed,” Pat says. “When people ask me why we do this, I tell them to not be blinded by the past but think about what you can do in the future.”
Heidi says the Conservancy will continue to find ways to support farmers and birds. “Whooping cranes link Kansas to the world, so we are privileged to have the chance to protect this amazing wetland system and the local way of life.”