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Drought raises stakes on Republican River

Melissa Widhalm, NDMC

There’s a border war going in the Midwest and it’s over water. Kansas and Nebraska have been battling for years over the water in the Republican River, which runs from Colorado to Kansas, through Nebraska.

Farmers in all three states depend on the Republican River to irrigate their fields and with agriculture such a prominent industry in the Midwest, the water battle amounts to a big deal. Kansas and Nebraska’s current dispute will eventually head to the U.S. Supreme Court. And with many farmers dealing with drought and planning for water restrictions, the battle is heating up.

Up and down the Republican River, 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.

Credit Grant Gerlock, Harvest Public Media
Mark Taddiken has watched the Republican River rise and fall in north-central Kansas. Three-quarters of his land is irrigated with water from the river.

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

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 the 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.

Map of the Republican River Basin with the colors indicating sub-basins within the basin.

  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.

The water line on the dam of Harlan County Lake shows the reservoir's normal water level. (Grant Gerlock, Harvest Public Media)

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 3 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.

Kansas farmer 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.

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.