Drought raises stakes on Republican River

Sandbars in the Republican River near Hardy, Neb. are covered in reeds and edged in ice. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News)
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January 24, 2013 - 6:30am

Kansas and Nebraska’s dispute over the Republican River continues to head for a decision by the Supreme Court. The latest chapter in the border water battle comes as many farmers are dealing with drought and planning for water restrictions.


Up and down the Republican River from Colorado, through Nebraska and Kansas, water feeds the farm economy. Irrigated fields raise more valuable crops. Local businesses sell more seed and fertilizer. The price of land goes up.

Three-quarters of Mark Taddiken’s land near Clifton, Kan. Is irrigated and he counts on the river for water.

On a cold January morning, Taddiken discussed river issues while repairing an electric fence powered from an irrigation pivot. Cattle stood with their backs to the wind and watched the 62-year-old farmer replace a fuse in the pivot’s power box.

“See that’s putting out 7 amps,” said Taddiken holding a fence tester to the wire. “That’s a hot fence. So we’re good.”

Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News

Mark Taddiken has watched the Republican River rise and fall in north central Kansas.


Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News

Gauges like this one near Hardy, Neb. measure the level and flow of the Republican River. The 1943 Republican River Compact gives 49% of the river's water to Nebraska, 40% to Kansas, and 11% to Colorado.

Like the nearby Republican River, the fence isn’t worth much if there is no current. Taddiken counts on the river for water but if the river level stays low, like it is now, Kansas law will require him to use much less.

“That restriction on what we can pump is probably going to cost us $500 an acre,” Taddiken said. “Like we’re standing under this pivot right now that covers 120 acres. That restriction on that one well alone would be around $60,000.”

Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas divided the Republican River 70 years ago. But in 1943 there were only about 30,000 acres of irrigated land in the river basin. Now there’s closer to 3 million.

That’s why, Taddiken said, when it gets dry the states get protective.

“Kansas says, wait a minute, we don’t think we’re getting our fair share of water, and Nebraska said well yes you are,” Taddiken said, summarizing the border dispute. “Of course we couldn’t come to agreement on that so then we had the lawsuit.”

In a case headed for the Supreme Court, Nebraska admits to using more than their share of water during drought years in the mid-2000s. To make up for it, Kansas officials want the court to force Nebraska to permanently stop irrigation on thousands of acres. But Nebraska argues that would be overkill because water use along the river is already being reduced under new limits.

Mike Jess, the former director of Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources, said this year could be a genuine test for that claim. After the state’s driest year on record in 2012, Jess said Nebraska can prove its case.

“If Nebraska misses the mark by a wide margin I suppose it’s entirely possible that Kansas will be back knocking on the door of the Supreme Court,” Jess said.

Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News

The water line on the dam of Harlan County Lake shows the reservoir's normal water level.


Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News

Steve Snyder of Republican City, Neb. fishes for crappie through the lake ice. Snyder said the low water helps fishing in the short term, but threatens the health of the lake.

 

The drought was a disaster for the Republican River and its reservoirs. Stretches of the river ran dry. The water level plummeted at Harlan County Lake, the river’s main reservoir in Nebraska. A white line on the lake’s rocky dam shows where the water level is supposed to be. At the beginning of 2013, the reservoir held just over half of the amount of water it held in January 2012.

Jasper Fanning does not want to see another dry year like that. Fanning is manager of the Upper Republican Natural Resources District (URNRD) in southwestern Nebraska. To save water, The URNRD  has taken some land off of irrigation and has proposed cuts for everyone else. It also built a controversial new pipeline to put water back in the river in dry years.

The $12 million Rock Creek project will pull water from an underground aquifer and dump it in the creek where it can eventually flow on to Kansas and keep Nebraska in the clear.

“We can operate it at about 12,000 gallons-a-minute,” said Fanning. And the plan is to pump more than three billion gallons through the pipeline this year.

A group of Nebraska irrigators is suing the state for approving the Rock Creek project and a larger one near North Platte. Their argument is similar to one made by Kansas. They claim when the aquifer is overused, water is pulled away from the river and their irrigation canals. They think the pipeline is an unsustainable answer. But Fanning said that depends on what you’re trying to sustain.

“The difference is if we shut down 26,000 acres, that’s roughly $13 million of direct economic hardship in these times on those individuals who  own those wells,” Fanning said.

Back near Clifton, Kan., Mark Taddiken said he understands what his upstream neighbors in Nebraska are fighting for.

“It’s not a good deal for those folks up there,” Taddiken said. “They’ve put in those systems depending on that water. It would be a curtailment for them or a loss for them, but only to the point that they’re giving us our fair share.”

No doubt you could hear the same thing on the other side of the border.

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