Neb. district buying land for water plan

IMPERIAL, Neb. —A southwest Nebraska natural resources district is buying nearly 3,300 acres of land to reduce the amount of groundwater used in the area and help the state comply with the Republican River water use agreement.

The Upper Republican Natural Resources District said Wednesday that its board approved the $10 million land purchase and a 10-mile pipeline project to carry water from the land to Rock Creek that will cost between $2 million and $5 million.

The project should reduce the chances that farmers in the district will have to stop irrigating during dry years, and it should help Nebraska meet its obligations under the three-state compact that governs use of the Republican River and avoid overusing the water. Kansas says Nebraska has been using more than its share of Republican River water.

"This project is a cost-effective way to stay in compliance with the compact while protecting our water resources and keeping farmers in the basin in business," said Jasper Fanning, general manager of the Upper Republican NRD.

The land being purchased is irrigated by 24 center-pivot systems and sits about seven miles north of Parks in Dundy County. The land will eventually be returned to natural vegetation, and the water that's been used to irrigate the land will be available during drought for piping into Rock Creek, which flows into the Republican River.

Officials hope the pipeline that will be used to carry water into the creek will be completed in 2012. The Imperial-based district expects to use the pipeline once every three or four years during dry years.

Brian Dunnigan, director of Nebraska's Department of Natural Resources, said this project should help the state satisfy Kansas' demands in the future, but more work needs to be done and similar projects may be needed elsewhere in the Republican River basin.

"Anything that reduces the consumptive use of water is a good thing," Dunnigan said.

The Republican River starts in eastern Colorado, flows into Kansas and up to Nebraska and returns to Kansas in Republic County. Its basin covers almost 25,000 square miles. Under a 1943 river compact signed by the three states, 49 percent of the river's water is allocated to Nebraska, 40 percent to Kansas and 11 percent to Colorado.

In 1998, Kansas sued Nebraska, alleging its neighbor to the north violated the compact by allowing thousands of wells to tap the river and its tributaries.

The three states settled that lawsuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court's decree approved the settlement. But Kansas officials have continued to complain that Nebraska is taking too much water. Kansas and Nebraska are working with an arbitrator to resolve their latest disagreements over the river, but the case could wind up back in the U.S. Supreme Court.