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Long-running Republican River dispute takes another turn

The Republican River near Orleans, Neb., nearly ran dry during the hot summer months of 2012. Kansas has claimed Nebraska irrigators have overused their portion of the river's water. (Courtesy Rick Creek/U.S. Geological Survey)
The Republican River near Orleans, Neb., nearly ran dry during the hot summer months of 2012. Kansas has claimed Nebraska irrigators have overused their portion of the river's water. (Courtesy Rick Creek/U.S. Geological Survey)

The dispute between Kansas and Nebraska over the Republican River has taken nearly as many twists and turns as the river itself. The latest bend in the story could force Nebraska to pay its downstream neighbor millions of dollars, but it doesn't amount to the sharp turn it could have been.

Some background: Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas share the water in and around the Republican River under an agreement the states and the federal government forged in 1943. Irrigation is a major boost to agriculture in all three states and each state protects agriculture interests aggressively.

A special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court has been listening to the latest arguments over the Republican River. In this case, Kansas alleged Nebraska was negligent when it allowed irrigators to use more than their share of the river basin’s water in 2005 and 2006, which left less water for Kansas farmers and ranchers.

In a draft recommendation to the Supreme Court, Special Master William Kayatta said Nebraska owes Kansas some water money, to the tune of $5 million. But for Nebraska, that was good news.

Kansas wanted $80 million. Kansas also wanted Nebraska to be forced to halt irrigation on hundreds of thousands of acres along the Republican River. Kayatta recommended the court deny that request and deny the request for the court to appoint a “river master” to make sure Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado are minding their 70 year-old contract.

“This report is a positive step for our basin irrigators who have worked hard to keep Nebraska in compliance with the [river rules] on an annual basis since 2007,” Neb. Attorney General Jon Bruning said in a statement.

But there is always another bend farther down the river. As a deep drought extends into 2013, irrigation managers upstream will be tested to see if they can keep enough water in the river to keep Kansas happy.

And this is not the end of the road for the current case. Attorneys from each side will be able to respond to the draft report on Jan. 24 before Kayatta makes final recommendations to the Supreme Court.

(Map courtesy Kansas Department of Agriculture. Click to open in new window.)