It was almost as much of a certainty as water flowing downhill.
But continuing drought and a shortage of water set the stage for a Jan. 1 announcement of mandatory conservation measures in the Republican River Basin in Nebraska. The goal set forth by the Department of Natural Resources for 2013 is to keep the state in compliance with the Republican River Compact.
“Based on the forecast procedures set forth in each of the Republican River integrated management plans, the department has determined that 2013 is a Compact Call Year,” Natural Resources Director Brian Dunnigan said in a widely expected prepared statement.
Action comes with compact partner Kansas already seeking as much as $70 million in damages from Nebraska for alleged compact violations in 2005 and 2006.
Draft recommendations for settling that lawsuit are expected from a Maine mediator by Jan. 9. Final recommendations go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In an interview Wednesday, Dunnigan said it’s up to the Upper and Lower Republican natural resources districts to make up for an expected gap of about 9,000 acre feet in water that must be delivered to Kansas.
“The management actions that have to be taken all fall on groundwater users,” he said, “and the natural resources districts are to come up with management actions that are needed to make up the shortfall.”
He acknowledged that the conservation measures also require that water that would ordinarily flow into Harlan County Reservoir, Swanson Reservoir and others along the river and its tributaries be bypassed so it will stay in the river and cross into Kansas near Guide Rock.
“But actual management actions,” he said, “are all actions that will be taken by the NRDs.”
That didn’t stop leadership of the Frenchman Cambridge Irrigation District and the Bostwick Irrigation District from filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court late Friday that names the Department of Natural Resources, among others, as a defendant.
Brad Edgerton, speaking on behalf of Frenchman Cambridge and some 425 surface water irrigators, said later Wednesday that the bypassing requirement means water that would normally replenish reservoirs will go to Kansas instead until further notice.
“I don’t see how that’s not on the backs of surface water,” he said.
Dunnigan said he could modify or cancel the call later if drought conditions ease.
“We will assess that on a continuous basis to see what’s necessary. And we will do what we can for the water users in the basin.”
Edgerton didn’t find much comfort in that prospect.
“It’s pretty difficult to get a notice on July 1 that they’ve lifted the call and everybody is planted for dryland production and we’re supposed to be happy with that,” he said.
Frenchman Cambridge producers must decide much earlier about buying seed corn meant for irrigated or unirrigated production.
“Basically, if you don’t know by the first of April how much water is available, people will be buying seed and fertilizer and making other arrangements as far as what to plant.”
Lower plant populations are one effect in fields transitioning from irrigated to unirrigated.
The lawsuit filed by surface-water irrigators also names the Upper Republican NRD as a defendant and alleges that proposed conservation measures by local groundwater officials threaten the surface-water supply.
Nate Jenkins of Upper Republican headquarters in Imperial said the leadership there had not seen a copy of the lawsuit as of Wednesday afternoon.
NRDs must have their conservation responses to the compact call in place by the end of the month.
Upper Republican officials intend to use their Rock Creek project, which involves retiring 3,260 irrigated acres near Benkelman, to cover their portion of the compact shortfall.
The intent is to pump water from that site through a pipeline and into the Republican.
“The pipeline is in place,” Jenkins said. “A lot of the wells have been drilled. We’re just tying up loose ends on that right now.”