Monday, November 14, 2005
Users of Republican River water in Nebraska have overused their allocation under multistate compact of 1943 and Kansas' recent settlement of suit against Nebraska; irrigators face possible irrigation shut off Omaha.Com ALMA, Neb. - Anger, exasperation and fear in Nelson Trambly's voice exposed the anxiety rising across the Republican River like a spring gully washer. "The people here have agreed to nothing. We're doing our part," he declared, defying the notion of lowering water allocations to south-central Nebraska irrigators to help Nebraska comply with a Republican River water compact with Colorado and Kansas."Give us total power over groundwater. It's our only hope," Trambly said. "The pain will be deep here. . . . We shouldn't be holding the sack for the whole state." Trambly, a Campbell, Neb., farmer, was the chairman at a meeting last week of the Lower Republican Natural Resources District. Seated across the room with a few farmers and others was Trambly's primary audience: State Sen. Ed Schrock of Elm Creek, co-chairman of the Governor's Water Policy Task Force and an architect of Nebraska's new water law.Trambly's impassioned appeals came a day after The World-Herald reported the state's first public acknowledgment of projections that it overused its 2005 allocation of Republican River water.The state must comply with an agreement to give Kansas its full share of water by the end of 2006 or face possible penalties - shutting down irrigation wells or paying millions of dollars in damages. Schrock had no definite answers for Trambly but said he was confident that the Legislature and governor would offer financial and political help. Nebraska Department of Natural Resources officials plan to meet Thursday with basin NRD managers and others in Holdrege to discuss possible resolutions. Ann Bleed, the department's acting director, said all options would be considered. That includes short-term solutions, such as restricting irrigation or buying water held in reservoirs to release to Kansas, to try to reach compliance. The 1943 river compact allocates 49 percent of the river's water to Nebraska, 40 percent to Kansas and 11 percent to Colorado. Kansas sued in 1998, claiming that Nebraska was using more than its share. An out-of-court settlement in 2002 upheld the compact, but Nebraska was required to account for stream-flow depletions caused by groundwater wells. Final settlement document the States sent to the US Supreme court is in pdf. There are 13,100 registered irrigation wells in the Nebraska stretch of the basin. Farmers in the area added at least 792 wells and more than 100,000 irrigated acres since Kansas sued. The biggest spike in wells came in 2002, the worst summer of the drought and the year that farmers were aware of pending moratoriums on well-drilling as state water officials warned basin farmers of the need to stop expanding their irrigated land. Bleed said she understands the frustration being vented across the region. "I know that irrigators have worked very hard across the basin to cut back on their use of water," she said. Steve Smith of Imperial, Neb., founder of WaterClaim, an aquifer irrigators advocacy group, said he hopes that state officials release all relevant information on projected stream flows and depletions caused by irrigation. "If I'm Ed Schrock, how do I make reasonable policy when I've been given bad information?" Smith asked. Smith said he is concerned that if Nebraska remains out of compliance next year, the federal courts will take control of managing the basin's water from local and state regulators. "That would be painful," he said. Don Adams, executive director of the Lincoln-based Nebraskans First irrigation advocates, said that if Nebraska imposes more restrictions on irrigators, it is evidence that the state's compact lawsuit negotiators "got beat by their Kansas counterparts about as bad as the Kansas football team beat Nebraska" a week ago. Adams said if the state requires farmers to retire irrigated land to comply with the compact, then the Legislature must fairly compensate them for lost income and devalued property. "Irrigators trusted the State Department of Natural Resources," Adams said, "and over the decades invested millions of dollars in wells, pumps and center-pivots to enhance their productivity." The issue is causing consternation in the neighboring natural resources districts. "The basic problem is that there may not be any effective way to remedy the situation," said Dan Smith, manager of the Middle Republican NRD. "If increased regulations do no good, why do it?" Jasper Fanning, manager of the Upper Republican NRD, said his irrigators used less than their 13.5-inch per acre allocation this year. "The producers here have lived up to what was asked of them," he said. "But it's a hot potato at Lincoln (in state government). Nobody wants to touch it and seriously address the issue." The Middle Republican board reviewed a number of alternatives last week and found none practical. The toughest hurdle was how to pay for a solution. The three NRDs in the basin have such a limited tax base that their collective taxing ability would collect a total of less than $500,000. "We would need millions of dollars," Dan Smith said. Options considered by the Middle Republican NRD board include: lowering irrigators' allocations from the average annual 13-inch per acre allowance, transferring water from the Platte River basin and buying river water from surface-water irrigators. An off-the-wall option is pumping water into the river from groundwater wells. None is a viable short-term solution, he said. Middle Republican irrigators, according to preliminary reports, used slightly more than 9 inches of water on average this year, down from 14.4 inches last year. Reducing allocations won't squeeze out enough water fast enough to trickle into the river. Using water from the Platte basin - proposed by WaterClaim - would require willing sellers and cost millions, he said. "Nobody's going to give it to you," Smith said. Buying surface water and letting it flow to Kansas is flawed: with surface-water reservoirs and canals left virtually dry by the drought, any water released into the river from far upstream would soak into the ground before it crossed the state line, he said. Trambly at the Lower Republican NRD was pessimistic. "Everybody knows the problem," he said, "but nobody knows the answer."
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