Neb. restricts Republican River water use in 2013

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Nebraska is imposing limits on the use of the Republican River to make sure enough water flows downstream to Kansas this year in the midst of a drought.

The state Department of Natural Resources issued an order this week requiring additional conservation measures in the river basin to help Nebraska comply with a long-standing agreement with Kansas and Colorado.

Several conservation measures have been put in place since Nebraska last used more of the Republican River's water than it's entitled to, but the Upper and Lower Republican River Natural Resource Districts will have to take additional steps to comply this year.

The dispute over the Republican River's water has led to two lawsuits between Kansas and Nebraska, including one pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

All the water that normally would flow into the Harlan County, Swanson and other reservoirs along the Republican will remain in the river to bolster the flow of water to Kansas. And Brian Dunnigan, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said the Upper and Lower Republican districts will have to find ways to add about 9,000 acre feet of water to the river's flow to Kansas.

The Middle Republican River district is expected to be OK without additional conservation.

"The management actions that have to be taken all fall on groundwater users," Dunnigan said, "and the natural resources districts are to come up with management actions that are needed to make up the shortfall."

All three of the natural resource districts have taken measures to reduce water use along the Republican River, and they have developed plans to deal with years like 2013 when additional conservation is needed. But this year will be the first time those plans are tested.

Farmers who rely on the river's water will be affected by the additional conservation measures.

Last fall, the three Republican River districts joined with the Twin Platte district to buy 15,800 acres with plans to retire those acres from production. The water that had been used to irrigate that land will help increase flows in the Republican and Platte Rivers. Other districts have taken similar measures.

The Upper Republican district bought 3,300 acres of land in southwest Nebraska and built a 10-mile pipeline to carry water from that land to a tributary of the Republican River.

Another pipeline plan involves nearly 19,000 acres in Lincoln County that the three Republican River districts teamed up with the state to buy in October for $83 million. That land will be retired from production and the water used for irrigation there will be piped to the Republican River.

But last week the Frenchman Cambridge and the Bostwick irrigation districts filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Lincoln County plan, so it's not clear if that pipeline will proceed. The irrigation districts argued the plan to send water downstream would bypass them and hurt area farmers.

A 1943 compact dictates that Nebraska gets 49 percent of the Republican River's water, Kansas gets 40 percent and Colorado gets 11 percent.

Kansas and Nebraska reached a 2003 settlement over water in the Republican, but Kansas claims Nebraska exceeded its allotment by more than 78,000 acre-feet from 2005 through 2006.

Nebraska taxpayers could face a multimillion dollar bill if Kansas prevails in its lawsuit. New limits on irrigation in the 1.2 million acres of the Republican River basin also could come out of the lawsuit.