Kansas continues to quibble with Nebraska over water

KEARNEY, Neb. — Kansas officials believe Nebraska still isn't doing enough to conserve water in the Republican River basin, so the dispute might return to the U.S. Supreme Court.

David Barfield, who leads the Kansas Agriculture Department's Division of Water Resources, said this week that wet weather is the biggest reason Nebraska has been in compliance with the compact that governs use of Republican River water since 2007.

"It's our view that Nebraska is not really recognizing the scope of the problem," Barfield said.

Earlier this fall, an arbitrator ruled on several issues in the ongoing Republican River disagreement, and the states have been working on reaching an agreement.

Nebraska officials say the state is simply defending its right to use the water it is entitled to.

"We want to deliver every drop to Kansas that they have coming. And not one drop more," state Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege said.

The new state Republican River Sustainability Task Force will recommend plans to achieve water sustainability. Carlson said members also will discuss ways to avoid a water-short year designation, which makes it more difficult for Nebraska to do so.

Carlson said if the state builds more facilities now to store water in wet years, the compliance problems might be eliminated.

The states are waiting to hear whether the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to review Kansas' concerns.

Nebraska farmers might be forced to stop irrigating about 500,000 acres in the 1.2 million-acre Republican River basin if Kansas prevails. Nebraska also might have to compensate Kansas for economic gains it may have reaped from using too much water. The figure isn't specified in Kansas' petition to the Supreme Court, but the state has previously calculated it at $72 million.

The Republican River starts in eastern Colorado, flows into Kansas and then up into to Nebraska before returning to Kansas. The river basin covers almost 25,000 square miles.

Use of the river's water is governed by a 1943 compact between Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. Colorado was given 11 percent of the water, while Kansas was allotted 40 percent and Nebraska 49 percent.

If the states fail to reach an agreement following the arbitrator's rulings, the dispute is likely to return to the Supreme Court.

In the 1990s, farmers and officials in Kansas accused Nebraska of taking more than its allocated share. Kansas filed a lawsuit against Nebraska with the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998.

A settlement was reached in 2003. Officials in both states hoped it would end their legal dispute but acknowledged that monitoring and enforcement issues remained.

Kansas officials contend that in 2005 and 2006, Nebraska used 25.7 billion gallons more in water from the Republican River than it was due — enough to supply a city of 100,000 people for almost 10 years. Nebraska officials acknowledged some overuse but questioned Kansas' accounting.

Nebraska was in compliance from 2007 through 2009. The arbitrator said last year that Nebraska's natural resource districts should cut back on water allocations to farmers to maintain compliance. Nebraska has rejected the suggestion.