Denver In an effort to fulfill a three-state water compact, the state engineer Tuesday ordered that water be released from a reservoir in northeastern Colorado.
The state plans to release about 2,200 acre feet of water over 25 days from the reservoir in Bonny Lake State Park, north of Burlington and just a few miles from the Kansas border. About 9,800 acre feet will be left, roughly the same amount that was in the reservoir last year.
The decision to release the water comes as Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas prepare for a meeting in August to determine if the states are complying with a compact that first divvied up use of the Republican River in 1942.
Accounts come due by year's end as required by the settlement of a 1998 lawsuit by the state of Kansas. The lawsuit by Kansas, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court, claimed the increasing number of wells was sapping the river and its tributaries, resulting in overuse by Colorado and Nebraska.
Nebraska and Colorado expect the numbers to show that they're using more water than they should. A big reason is the drought that has plagued Colorado's eastern plains for about five years.
"We've been in deficit every year," said Mike King, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. "We need to come up with a long-term solution."
To help bring the state into compliance, water managers have worked with farmers to take about 30,000 acres out of irrigation. They hope to idle another 30,000 acres, again offering financial incentives with federal and state dollars.
Other options are increasing policing of illegal groundwater pumping and building a pipeline for direct water deliveries to Kansas and Nebraska, said Harris Sherman, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Struggles over water are occurring across the West, said Tom Cech, executive director of the Greeley-based Central Colorado Water Conservancy District.
"The Republican River is just another of numerous basins being faced with drought and inadequate water supplies to serve all the needs," said Cech, who has watched wells in his area turned off because of disputes over the South Platte River.
Colorado's share of the Republican River dropped to 25,000 acre feet of water a year after the drought hit. The state's annual use has ranged from about 35,000 to 37,000 acre feet, said Ken Knox, chief deputy state engineer.
An acre foot of water is about 326,000 gallons, or enough for two households for one year.
There are at least 4,000 wells on the Republican River in Colorado, said Stan Murphy, general manager of the Republican River Water Conservation District.
Murphy said well owners haven't faced mandatory shutdowns like the ones on the South Platte River, where holders of senior rights successfully argued that wells were illegally drawing down the water.
"But they worry that could happen," Murphy added.
Thanks to additional moisture, tributaries that have been dry in recent years are flowing, but no one knows how long that will last, Murphy said.
Yuma-area rancher and farmer Brett Rutledge said this winter's heavy snows and spring rains have raised people's hopes for better crops. But recent warm, dry weather has diminished some of the gains.
Rutledge said some of his corn crops are starting to weaken even as corn prices keep rising because of the ethanol boom.
"It's frustrating to drive by there and know it's not going to produce anything," Rutledge said.
Fears of liability from not meeting the Republican River compact prompted Nebraska lawmakers this year to pass a measure to raise up to $16 million annually through taxes and fees on people in the river basin. The money would go in part to improve conservation and compensate Kansas.
Nebraska has used more than its allocation the past three years.