By Nate Jenkins
Associated Press Writer
LINCOLN (AP)—Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman’s administration has suggested irrigation shutdowns in a large swath of the Republican River basin during dry years to help send Kansas the water it is owed under a three-state compact, according to an official familiar with the proposal.
The official discussed it with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Aug. 25, on condition of anonymity because the plan is supposed to remain secret for now.
Farmers and others in the irrigation-heavy region of southwest and south-central Nebraska said such a shutdown could be a huge economic blow.
“You’re talking about a really big financial hit on a large area,’’ Holbrook-area farmer Dale Helms said when told of the plan.
He irrigates land with wells that could be turned off occasionally. “You can’t just shut this thing down ... and expect everyone will still be around when you turn it back on.’’
Some say such action is needed to keep Nebraska from a repeat of 2005 and 2006, when more Republican River water was used than allowed under a settlement and compact that also includes Colorado.
“It’s a big step in the right direction,’’ said University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor David Aiken, a water-law expert. “This is the kind of thing we have to do to be in compliance in the long term.’’
Heineman and the state’s top water official, Brian Dunnigan, would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the plan that was presented to natural resources districts in the basin last week.
Asked if the state was considering an irrigation shutdown, Dunnigan, director of the Department of Natural Resources, said, “We’re considering all options,’’ and that it was premature to discuss them.
Under the plan, groundwater wells within possibly a couple of miles of the river and its main tributaries that irrigate between 250,000 acres and 334,000 acres in the river basin would be shut down.
Irrigation using the wells, however, would be closed only during so-called water-short years.
Under the 2002 settlement reached after Kansas claimed Nebraska was breaking the 65-year-old water compact, a water-short year is defined as one when Harlan County Lake near the Kansas border is less than about one-third full.
State officials have said that water-short years occur between 25 percent and 33 percent of the time. Barring an extreme drought, there probably won’t be another water-short year for least two years because Harlan County Lake is currently full.
The proposal to curtail groundwater irrigation near the river to increase river flows and send more water to Kansas comes on the heels of a nonbinding decision last month by an arbitrator appointed to help resolve a dispute between Kansas and Nebraska that appears headed to court.
While Colorado-based arbitrator Karl Dreher said Nebraska owed Kansas just $10,000 for overusing river water in 2005 and 2006—a tiny fraction of the $9 million Kansas demanded—Dreher said Nebraska’s plan for future compliance with the compact was insufficient.
He recommended Nebraska’s natural resources districts, which control groundwater irrigation, reduce water allocations to farmers below what is required in so-called integrated management plans.
The plans are crafted with help from state officials and are designed to curtail water use in the area. Dunnigan said he hopes to amend the plans with actions to help ensure future compact compliance by the end of the year.
The restrictions being proposed wouldn’t be as stringent as those requested by Kansas and that Dreher said went too far: A permanent shut down of wells providing water to about half the 1.2 million irrigated acres in Nebraska’s portion of the basin.
Hearings on the proposed irrigation shutdown and any other proposals to amend the water-use plans would likely be held this fall.
If the resources districts in the river basin don’t agree to the irrigation cuts in water-short years, a board with some members appointed by Heineman could impose the restriction without support from the districts.