Lincoln, Neb. A high-stakes water fight between Kansas and Nebraska over use of the Republican River appears headed to court after an arbitrator decided Kansas is owed a tiny fraction of the $9 million it demanded from its northern neighbor.
In a nonbinding decision, Colorado-based arbitrator Karl Dreher ruled that Nebraska only owes Kansas $10,000 for Nebraska’s alleged overuse of the water in 2005 and 2006.
Dreher wrote that the damages incurred by Kansas may range as high as several million dollars, but Kansas didn’t provide sufficient evidence to back its claim that Nebraska inflicted heavy losses on Kansas by breaking a 65-year-old compact that guides the use of the heavily irrigated river basin. The compact also includes Colorado.
Kansas initially sought $72 million from Nebraska, but lowered that amount after Dreher ruled the state could only seek damages for what it had suffered, not payment for what Nebraska had gained.
“We disagree with his decision we have not provided enough justification,” said David Barfield, Kansas’ chief water official. Barfield hinted that Kansas would pursue the matter in court.
“Kansas has been very diligent pursuing this matter for a couple of decades, so I think you can expect us to continue … until it’s resolved,” Barfield said.
Kansas Attorney General Steve Six said in a written statement, “We will continue to fight to ensure Kansas farmers and communities receive the water they deserve.”
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said the decision supports Nebraska’s claim that any damage had been minimal.
Dreher did deem Nebraska’s plan for future compliance with the compact insufficient, and said the state needs to scale back its projected water reductions — a decision that pleased Barfield.
The arbitrator recommended Nebraska’s natural resources districts 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 designed to curtail water use.
Dreher did not specify how much the allocations should be reduced. He also recommended the resource districts enter into permanent contracts with surface-water irrigators to ensure enough water to comply with the compact can be sent to Kansas during dry years. Under such contracts, surface-water irrigators are paid not to irrigate, increasing flows in the river.