U.S. Water News Online
LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska water officials are moving ahead with a detailed study of a pipeline that would dump groundwater into the Republican River for use by Kansas.
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The state and natural resources districts in the Republican basin together may spend roughly $950,000 on the second phase of a study to design the pipeline that could be built somewhere between Harlan County Lake and Guide Rock, near the Kansas border.
Supporters say the pipeline could help Nebraska get into compliance with the three-state river compact that dictates how much Republican River water Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado can use.
Nebraska has overused its allotment of river water in recent years, and Kansas officials have demanded more than $72 million in damages and a shutdown of wells that irrigate nearly half of the 1.2 million acres in Nebraska's portion of the river basin. The two sides have been unable to resolve their dispute, and the issue is likely headed to arbitration.
"If things go south on us again and we run into another drought, we want something where we can push a button and say, 'Here you go, '"to Kansas, said Mike Clements, manager of the Alma-based Lower Republican Natural Resources District.
The pipeline would not replace plans already approved in the region to reduce groundwater irrigation allocations to farmers, done in an effort to raise water tables and increase stream flows, Clements said.
"We're doing things that help now, but you don't see quick, stream flow impacts from reduced groundwater pumping. If we get back into a severe drought, we need other measures we can take. I look at this as an insurance policy.''
Clements said it's too early to say how much the pipeline would cost and that there has not been a final decision on whether to build it. But if approved, it could be built within the next couple years.
Colorado plans to complete its own pipeline that would send water to Kansas by the summer of 2009. The 12 1/2-mile, $71 million pipeline would take groundwater now used on 10,000 acres of irrigated farmland in eastern Colorado to the north fork of the Republican River at the Colorado-Nebraska state line.
Likewise, groundwater pumped into the pipeline being considered by Nebraska would be offset by ceasing to irrigate some farm ground in Nebraska's portion of the basin.
That's necessary to prevent Nebraska from digging itself into an even deeper hole than it's already in with water problems, said Michael Jess, senior lecturer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Water Center and former director of the Nebraska Department of Water Resources.
But he cautioned that a pipeline will likely be very expensive, citing examples in other states.
"There's a lot of concern over the cost of these things," Jess said. "Who's going to pay it?''
The answer to that question and how much water the pipeline could carry is not yet known.
But Clements said he would like the pipeline to be able to deliver an amount of water roughly equal to Nebraska's river-compact deficits in previous years.
In 2004, for example, Nebraska used about 36,600 acre feet more than its allotment, equal to roughly 12 billion gallons.
The first phase of the pipeline study looked at nine possible sites throughout Nebraska's portion of the basin. The study identified the area between Harlan County Lake and Guide Rock, about 40 miles downstream of the lake, as the most feasible.
But Clements said the possibility of having a second site above the lake is also being considered.
A pipeline would have to be approved by the state, according to Jasper Fanning, manager of the Upper Republican NRD.
Brian Dunnigan, acting director of the state Department of Natural Resources, did not return a phone message to speak about the plan.
Fanning said the Republican River Compact Administration would also have to consider any such pipeline plan. The group is made up of officials from Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado and governs the river compact.