Nebraska cities and towns need to look at contracts with irrigators willing to shut down their wells as a way to protect themselves against the next drought, an official with the League of Nebraska Municipalities said Wednesday.

“That’s a lot cheaper than trying to punch in a new well in the middle of the summer,” Lash Chaffin told those attending a water law conference at The Cornhusker Marriott.

Chaffin’s advice comes on the heels of a record-breaking drought in 2012 that led to mandatory water restrictions in Lincoln and fears of more of the same in 2013.

A return to more normal precipitation patterns eased concerns this past summer, but more tensions between irrigators and other water users seem inevitable in a state that leads the nation in watering crops.

Sought out after making his prepared remarks, Chaffin said he did not know of any towns that had turned to irrigation shutdown contracts yet.

Financial compensation for farmers who agree to shut down wells will be the key to what happens from here on, he said.

A graduated approach would be one way to pitch the concept to agricultural water users, according to the League official. “If you shut off on July 12, you get this much. If you shut off on July 18, you get this much.”

Payments to farmers must match estimated crop losses dollar for dollar. “Basically the city has to make you whole,” Chaffin said.

No matter what emergency drought strategies cities choose, they must be streamlined, he said. “Give somebody the authority to act. Don’t set them up so you have to have a meeting.”

The annual water law conference is sponsored by the Water Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The daylong agenda touched on a variety of topics, including important court outcomes and pending court cases.

Later Wednesday, Lincoln attorney Don Blankenau, who represents Nebraska in its ongoing dispute with Kansas over the Republican River Compact, predicted an outcome in the latest U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit as early as the spring of next year.

Kansas has sought more than $70 million in damages and permanent shutdown of wells serving some 300,000 acres in Nebraska as a way of resolving the state's complaint that it hasn’t been getting its fair share of river flows.

Blankenau said the pending release date of a final report from a mediator assigned to the case by the Supreme Court is the pivotal factor in final court action.

A draft recommendation from the mediator looked favorable to Nebraska, he said.

“We’re hopeful it will come down with an award of $5 million or less.”

Kansas has not been agreeable to various actions taken by Colorado, the third compact member, or by Nebraska to boost flows in the Republican.

That includes the $60 million pipeline built by Colorado to pump water into the river or to the Rock Creek, and Lincoln Farms augmentation measures put together by Nebraska natural resources districts.

Extensive groundwater irrigation development in Nebraska since 1980 and Kansas contentions about the extent of its depleting effect on surface flows in the river ended a long period of relative calm among the compact partners.

“After the compact was signed in 1943, all was quiet for 40 years,” Blankenau said.

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com