U.S. Water News Online
MCCOOK, Neb. -- Matt Harrison was too angry for small talk,
so he instead asked a question state officials will likely hear
repeatedly as they try to solve the state's water crisis.
"How many millions of dollars of economic devastation was there
this morning?" Harrison, a farmer near Republican City asked Ann
Bleed, acting director of the state Department of Natural Resources.
An ongoing drought, too many irrigation wells and a legal
obligation to share water with Kansas have put Nebraska in a pinch.
Bleed suggested to more than 100 farmers and local natural
resource district officials that reducing groundwater pumping by 15
percent across the Republican River basin would be one way to
increase stream flows, eventually sending Kansas the water it is owed
under a three-state compact.
Nebraska officials, including Gov. Dave Heineman, have conceded
the state -- partly because of the ongoing drought -- will probably
break the compact, making the state vulnerable to paying damages to
Kansas. Nebraska officials are now scrambling for a way to meet its
water obligations in the future.
The 1943 compact allocated the annual water supply in the
Republican basin. Nebraska gets 49 percent, Kansas gets 40 percent
and Colorado gets 11 percent.
Nebraska has been using more than its share.
Kansas filed a lawsuit in 1998, arguing that Nebraska breached the
compact by allowing the proliferation and use of thousands of wells
connected to the river and its tributaries along the state's southern
Nebraska argued that groundwater use was not regulated by the
compact because it was signed before deep-well irrigation was used in
the river basin.
The U.S. Supreme Court later approved the settlement of the
Nebraska did not have to pay monetary damages as a result of the
settlement, but would be forced to if Kansas does not get its share
of the water.
Earlier this year, members of the Nebraska Bostwick Irrigation
District voted to sell their 2006 water allotment to the state --
which will send it down the Republican River to Kansas -- for about
The Bostwick initiative was one of several efforts launched by the
state to find enough water to balance the books with Kansas.
Nebraska officials are also hoping that stringent management plans
will show good faith to Kansas and prevent the state from asking
Nebraska to pay for the water it has failed to send.
The suggested regulations would be more drastic for irrigators
within two miles of the river and tributaries. They would have to cut
pumping in half if the preliminary plan comes to fruition --
representing a starting point in what are expected to be tense
negotiations between the state and NRDs in the basin.
Many in attendance were visibly upset by the preliminary plan, and
said it would poison the economy of the basin that has 65,000 people
and 1.3 million irrigated acres.
Bleed said the regulations were "not a pretty picture" but said
the irrigation amounts they would allow for are not far off what
irrigators in the basin used last year.
"It's too drastic," Holbrook farmer Dale Helms said of the plan
and Heineman's comments. "We've made a lot of cuts already and it's
going to be next to impossible to do it."
The regulations would not be enacted until 2008 and could be in
effect for three years. The state hopes to comply with the compact in
Nebraska has overused its compact allocation the last three years,
and estimates show the state could be short enough water to cover
200,000 acres of land -- more than 300 square miles -- with a foot of
Heineman quelled some concerns about whether the state will help
pay for water woes in the area, saying that his budget will call for
a fund to help pay for water problems in the Republican basin and
Such a water fund might also be funded by another, as yet unknown,
revenue stream that would not be a dedicated tax.
Some in the basin have suggested that water problems with Kansas
are solely a state-government problem since it was the state that
entered into the compact.
"Most Nebraskans don't think the state should have to pay it,"
Heineman told the crowd before saying the state would help. "Many
believe it's a local problem requiring a local solution."
As for state paying all the costs of compliance: "There aren't 25
votes in the Legislature to make that happen," Heineman said.
Heineman has repeatedly said water is the "issue of the decade"
but recently has moved beyond generalities, staking a position that
could chafe rural areas heavily dependent on irrigation agriculture.
For the second time, Heineman said water consumption and the increase
in irrigated acres are partly to blame for current problems.
But should the state and the NRDs not agree on new regulations to
curb water use, the state would have leverage in a water board formed
by the governor. It could force the regulations or others, something
Bleed says she doesn't want to happen without any legislative action.
Mike Clements, manager of the Lower Republican NRD, told Heineman
and others in attendance that the irrigation cuts discussed Friday
were unacceptable. "I'm still in a little bit of a state of shock,"
over them, he said.
A popular suggestion from Clements and others to send Kansas the
water it is owed is to augment the Republican River with water from
Whatever the final solution, the recent scene suggested it won't
"There's stress in this room and there's tension in this room
because lives are at stake," said Tom Carlson, a newly elected state
senator from Holdrege.
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