New Republican River deal hints at cooperation

Farm Forum

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A new agreement about managing the Republican River’s water this winter suggests more cooperation is possible in the long-running dispute between Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

The Lincoln Journal Star reports the states signed a one-year deal last month that allows Nebraska to keep some water in Harlan County Reservoir this fall, so it will be there next spring to help farmers downstream.

Without the new agreement, the 1943 compact between Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado would have required the water to be released this fall when farmers couldn’t use it.

Disputes over the Republican River compact have landed in the U.S. Supreme Court several times because Kansas says Nebraska used too much water. Nebraska is entitled to 49 percent of the water, Kansas gets 40 percent and Colorado gets 11 percent.

Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about how much Nebraska owes to Kansas for using more than its legal share of the river’s water in 2005 and 2006.

But the new agreement could signal the states might be more willing to settle their water disputes cooperatively in the future but it’s still early, said Don Blankenau, who represents Nebraska in Republican River litigation.

“Until an arrangement like that becomes permanent, my enthusiasm is a bit contained, but I think it is a good start,” he said.

Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey agreed the pact appears promising.

To help make sure Kansas receives enough water, natural resource districts in Nebraska have bought thousands of acres of land along the Republican River and ended irrigation there. The water that had been used for irrigation is being pumped into the river to boost its flow.

Before last month’s agreement, Nebraska wasn’t getting credit for all the water being pumped into the river and the compact called for more water to be released this fall and winter, said Jim Schneider, deputy director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources.

“We basically went to them and said this water is going to have to get released if we’re going to follow the compact accounting as it is currently written. If you would like to avoid that, we’d like to talk about these augmentation plans as well,” Schneider said.

Now Kansas irrigators can receive between 20,000 and 25,000 acre feet of water next year when it will be more useful to farmers. And Nebraska farmers in the Bostwick Irrigation District will be able to use some of the water being kept in the reservoir.

The new agreement will also allow Colorado irrigators to use wells to pump water into the river to make up for that state’s overuse this year.

Schneider said the states are close to finalizing a similar agreement for 2015. That should allow time for the states to work on a long-term compromise.