TOPEKA | Kansas and Colorado announced Tuesday that they've ended a long-running lawsuit over the Arkansas River.
The two states filed an agreement with the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the final technical issues about monitoring Colorado's use of water from the river. The agreement is designed to prevent the river's depletion as it flows into southwest Kansas.
Disputes over the river date back more than a century, and Kansas sued Colorado in 1985, claiming Colorado was improperly diverting millions of gallons of water. The Supreme Court ruled a decade later that groundwater pumping took water rightfully belonging to Kansas, and Colorado paid its neighbor more than $34 million in damages.
The lawsuit continued because of other issues, including the monitoring of water use, and in March, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decree spelling out how future disputes would be resolved. The agreement filed Tuesday was the last step toward closing the case.
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“We're pleased to put this longstanding water dispute behind us,” Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said. “We're looking forward to working with Kansas to prevent future water disputes.”
Kansas Attorney General Steve Six said the agreement should avoid litigation and save both states money. David Barfield, Kansas' chief water official, said the two states are working better together than in the past but acknowledged continued monitoring of Colorado's water use — and development in that state — make future conflict possible.
“It is the end of the litigation that was initiated in 1985,” he said. “It doesn't mean that we'll never have to go back to court again.”
The states' first lawsuit before the Supreme Court was in 1902. Another, in 1943, led to a compact in the late 1940s to govern water use from the Arkansas.
In the 1985 lawsuit, Kansas alleged Colorado had violated the compact, allowing 2,000 high-capacity wells near the river. In parts of western Kansas, the riverbed filled only during heavy rains. Residents were used to seeing it dry.
Arthur Littleworth, a special master appointed by the high court to review evidence, noted that under the compact, development in Colorado isn't supposed to materially deplete the river's flow. He said a computer model will determine how much water Kansas is due.
“I hope this puts an end to the dispute,” he said of Tuesday's filing.
The last outstanding issues between the states involved rules imposed by Colorado for its residents to make up for depletion from groundwater pumping. Barfield said negotiations led to “tweaks,” making the rules acceptable to Kansas.
He also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court's decree in March specified that when the states have a dispute and can't resolve it with negotiations, arbitration is required before they can head back to the high court.
Dick Wolfe, Barfield's counterpart in Colorado, said the states have created a good working relationship.
“It's kind of a big chapter in the history of the dispute to bring to closure 24 years of litigation,” he said.