U.S. Water News Online
OMAHA, Neb. -- Some irrigators along the Niobrara River are
asking a federal court to order the Nebraska Department of Natural
Resources (DNR) and the Nebraska Public Power District to stop trying
to interfere with their water rights.
In a class-action lawsuit filed recently in U.S. District Court in
North Platte, the irrigators said they were ordered by the DNR to
turn off their surface water and groundwater irrigation pumps May 1.
That order was lifted recently, but the DNR said it could reinstate
the stop order at any time, according to the lawsuit.
The irrigators allege the DNR formed an "unholy alliance" with
NPPD that would protect the power district's ability to produce
electricity at Spencer Dam.
The irrigators said NPPD offered to sell water rights back to the
farmers and ranchers for 70 cents per acre foot as long as the
irrigators conceded that NPPD has priority over their water rights.
They called the request "economic coercion."
DNR Director Ann Salomon Bleed said her agency would have no
Ron Asche, NPPD chief executive and president, said the
irrigators' claims to the water do, indeed, have higher priority
because the water is to be used for agricultural purposes.
But because NPPD obtained Niobrara water rights before the
irrigators -- Spencer Dam was built in 1927 -- NPPD is allowed to be
compensated for the water it surrenders, Asche said.
"It appears they are suing us for following what's provided in
state law," Asche said.
The lawsuit also requests that NPPD tear down Spencer Dam and
remove the silt left behind. Unspecified monetary damages also are
sought to compensate the farmers and ranchers for, among other
things, devaluation of their land caused by the silt.
The irrigators' attorney, Frank Taylor of Minneapolis, said the
DNR and NPPD exceeded their powers allowed by the statutes in trying
to strong-arm the irrigators.
Taylor said his clients have a constitutional right to the water
without paying NPPD for it.
The lawsuit also points out that the flow in streams and rivers in
Nebraska is controlled by the state, which sets water allocations for
Groundwater irrigators, on the other hand, are controlled by area
natural resources districts, which allocate groundwater equally to
Taylor said he was troubled by the timing of the stop orders.
The lawsuit said the DNR, NPPD and possibly other governmental
agencies "engineered a squeeze play by waiting until the planting
season, when plaintiffs need their water the most."
The lawsuit said the irrigators should have been given a hearing
before the DNR and NPPD issued the stop orders.
Plaintiffs listed on the lawsuit are Gerard and Janet Keating of
Illinois, who own 6,700 acres in Holt County; Daryl and Makala
Butterfield, who are tenant farmers on the Keatings' land; Frank and
Jane Krejci of Nebraska, who own 14,539 acres in Holt County; and
Timothy and Linda Peterson, who are tenant farmers on the Krejcis'
The plaintiff class is made up of farmers and ranchers either
renting or owning land in the Niobrara watershed.
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