By Nate Jenkins
Associated Press Writer
KEARNEY (AP) —A new plan to keep Nebraska in compliance with the Republican River compact is on the fast track.
On Monday, Gov. Dave Heineman told natural resources district officials, including those from the Republican River basin, that he wants the plan to be completed by early December.
One of the options being considered is an irrigation shutdown in parts of Nebraska’s part of the basin during dry years.
Heineman didn’t mention that option when speaking to water officials gathered at a meeting of the resources districts’ association Monday. But, he said, “Everything’s on the table.’’
Heineman reached out to the water officials, some of whom have been upset over his administration’s support for such a shutdown during dry years. The governor said he was “very, very confident that well-meaning and commonsense Nebraskans’’ can reach agreement on a compliance plan.
Water use from the Republican River is governed by a 2003 decree from the U.S. Supreme Court, which approved a settlement—among Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado—of a lawsuit filed by Kansas in 1998.
Officials are looking for another compliance plan after an arbitrator’s decision this summer.
In July, Colorado-based arbitrator Karl Dreher said Nebraska owed Kansas $10,000 for overusing river water in 2005 and 2006—a fraction of the $9 million Kansas demanded—but that Nebraska’s plan for future compliance with the compact was insufficient. Dreher didn’t suggest a solution.
State water officials told hundreds of Nebraska farmers earlier this month that an irrigation shutdown during so-called water-short years—defined as years when Harlan County Lake, near the Kansas border, is less than about one-third full—would be a last resort in a compliance plan that could have several other options.
They include pumping groundwater into the river to bolster flows, and buying surface water—basically paying farmers not to use the water that is mainly stored in reservoirs—so that it flows down the river and can go to Kansas instead of being spread on farmers’ fields.
Some managers of Republican River resources districts are expressing mild support for an irrigation-shutdown option, saying it could be less painful, and more financially feasible, than other options.
“If a little regulation would be required to be in compliance, it would be hard to justify’’ other actions such as spending tens of millions of dollars on a pipeline to send water to the river, said Jasper Fanning, manager of the Upper Republican Natural Resources District.
“You have to have regulations on the table so you know what you’re comparing them to,’’ he said.
Boards of the area’s natural resources districts will have to vote on a compliance plan that may include the irrigation-shutdown option.
Officials say they haven’t yet determined which areas might be off-limits to irrigation during water-short years. Early estimates provided to The Associated Press last month showed that more than 330,000 acres could be affected.
Officials have said water-short years occur 25 percent to 33 percent of the time. Barring an extreme drought, there probably won’t be another one for least two years, because Harlan County Lake is full.
Fanning comments on issue
Editor’s Note: In visiting with Fanning this week on the context of his statement, he noted that if only a handful of wells would need to be shut down to stay in compliance, that could be more effective than spending millions on other compliance projects.
However, until that number is known, things remain up in the air, he added.
As to the governor’s December deadline, Fanning said crafting a plan that works for the district and basin is more important than adopting a plan for the sake of a deadline.
He said he’s seen a preliminary map of the possible shut-down areas. It appears the Department of Natural Resources has squeezed down the area known as the quick response area.
Rather than regulate an area, he said the state is modelling actual wells to determine the most benefit in the case of a shut down.
He said every basin district will take a big hit and some irrigators will take an unbearable hit under the proposal.
He said it’s key the districts find some type of funding mechanism to enact other alternatives.