A U.S. Supreme Court decision that breathed new life into a decades-long water-rights dispute on the Great Plains has renewed concerns among southern Nebraska farmers about what could happen to their livelihoods.
The dispute centers on the Republican River, from which Kansas contends Nebraska took more than its share of water in 2005 and 2006. In addition to some $72 million in damages, Kansas is seeking to force Nebraska to stop irrigating about 500,000 acres in the Republican River basin — about half of the basin's 1.2 million irrigated acres and nearly 9 percent of the basin's total 5.8 million acres.
"That would be devastating to our operation and just the whole economy here," said Dan Nelsen, 30, who farms 5,000 acres — half of them irrigated — near Curtis, Neb. "Irrigation plays a big part in our operation. It keeps our cow and calf operation viable. Without that, we'd have to liquidate our herd."
The Kansas attorney general's office maintains Nebraska hasn't lived up to its end of a 1943 pact among Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado that governs the Republican River's use. The Supreme Court earlier this week gave Kansas permission to file a new petition over allegations that Nebraska used 25.7 billion gallons more in water from the river in 2005 and 2006 than it was due.
According to Jasper Fanning, general manager of the Upper Republican River Natural Resources District, if Kansas were to get its way, scores of farms in southern Nebraska and even the state's entire economy would be hurt.