States Settle Water Dispute

Colorado and Kansas have a new understanding about the Republican River.

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Kansas and Colorado will spend millions of dollars to maintain the south fork of the Republican River Basin as part of a new settlement agreement, Image by Jeffrey Beall

For decades, there’s been an ongoing battle around water allocations and the Republican River. Farmers have been a big part of the war, filing an untold number of lawsuits during the years around questions of water allocations and claims they did not receive water entitled them.

In a new agreement, Colorado agrees to pay Kansas $4 million to settle a Republican River Compact dispute. The agreement says Colorado will pay $2 million to “resolve any disputes” regarding the state’s past use of water and for any accounting period ending on or before Dec. 31, 2013. In addition, the state agreed to pursue a “good-faith effort” to spend an additional $2 million by Dec. 31, 2027, in the south fork of the Republican River Basin.

In February 2018, Colorado settled with Nebraska on the compact, paying $4 million for any violations. As part of this new agreement, Kansas and Colorado agree to forgo new damage claims for any water accounting period ending on or before Dec. 31, 2013.

To maintain its compliance with the compact, the state of Kansas agreed to spend the $2 million it received from Colorado to benefit the south fork of the Republican River Basin. As part of the agreement, neither state admitted to violating the compact.

“Furthermore, the amount of payment was the subject of negotiation among Colorado and Kansas, and does not constitute a valuation of water in either state, and may not be used by them as evidence of the value of water in any future dispute in the Republican River Basin or any other basin,” the agreement states.

The agreement is scrapped if either state doesn’t fulfill its obligation.

COMPACT OF CONFLICT. Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska entered into the compact in 1943 to divide water supplies in this basin. The basin area includes sections of eastern Colorado, northwest Kansas and southwest Nebraska.

Colorado and Kansas halted new groundwater irrigation development in the basin in the 1980s. However, Nebraska continued to allow the drilling of new wells. Kansas objected to Nebraska’s actions.

In May 1998, the state of Kansas filed a complaint with the U.S. Supreme Court stating the state of Nebraska had violated the compact by allowing the development of thousands of wells. Kansas alleged Nebraska was using more water than its allocation and, in doing so, deprived Kansas of its full allocation.

The states reached a settlement in 2003 that accounted for the pumping of groundwater. The compact requires Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska to take action if the reservoir is low.

During a dry spell in 2005–06, Nebraska overused its allotted share of the river, and Kansas water users were harmed. In 2010, Kansas filed a lawsuit against Nebraska in the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2015, the Court ruled Nebraska violated the compact and required the state to pay Kansas $5.5 million in damages and to take additional actions.

After the Kansas lawsuit, Nebraska took steps to achieve compliance, including developing two augmentation projects to enhance flows in the river to offset overuse. Colorado also developed a similar project to offset its overuse.

The Kansas Legislature took action in 2012 to establish conservation statewide. Kansas lawmakers modified the well-abandonment statute to require well owners to use their wells or lose them in areas closed to new water rights. The statute also requires users to submit annual water-use reports.

|The state has established multiyear flexible water accounts. There is a five-year pool where a producer can use water, as needed, based on area annual use. Additionally, the state has employed local enhanced management areas, setting a process for producers to propose water-conservation plans.

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