LINCOLN — If the legal dispute over irrigators' demands on the Republican River were a football game, it would be Huskers versus Jayhawks.
And some might say the leader of Nebraska's eighth-largest irrigation district has traded a helmet with a red “N” for one with a white “KU.”
Brad Edgerton, manager of the Frenchman Cambridge Irrigation District, gave a deposition last spring in which he seemed to side with Kansas in its $50-million legal claim against Nebraska. In addition to monetary damages, the lawsuit seeks to shut down irrigation on 300,000 acres in the Republican River watershed in southern Nebraska.
“It's a little shocking that he would assist the state of Kansas against the state of Nebraska,” said Jasper Fanning, manager of the Upper Republican Natural Resources District in Imperial.
Edgerton said Friday that his allegiance lies with irrigators in the Frenchman Cambridge district.
Their surface water rights have been infringed upon by over-development of groundwater irrigation, he said. An escalation in the number of groundwater wells has reduced river flows and hurt the district's ability to supply water to its customers, Edgerton said.
Groundwater and surface water are hydrologically connected, so pivot irrigation reduces flows in the Republican and its tributaries. Therefore, surface water irrigation stands to gain if groundwater irrigation is curtailed.
Groundwater irrigation far exceeds surface water irrigation. In the Republican River basin, about 1.2 million acres are irrigated with groundwater, compared with just under 100,000 acres served by surface water.
Though Edgerton said his board of directors is officially neutral on what has been dubbed the Kansas remedy, he acknowledged it could benefit the 45,600 acres of farmland the Frenchman Cambridge district irrigates on the Nebraska side.
“My job is to help out the irrigation district and protect my water rights and make sure our irrigators have a water supply year after year,” said Edgerton, who worked for the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources for 25 years before joining the irrigation district in 2009.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court will soon assume the role of referee. The case is scheduled for an Aug. 13 trial before a special court-assigned master.
The contest involves a disagreement over how to meet demand for irrigation water with limited flows in the Republican.
Kansas has contended for decades that Nebraska and Colorado have used more than their share of water, violating a 1943 compact among the three states.
Water supplies have become even more tight with the emergence of center-pivot irrigation systems, which allow water to be pumped from underground aquifers.
Eliminating irrigation on nearly one-quarter of the irrigated acres in the basin would have devastating economic consequences, said Dean Edson, director of the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts.
“If we lose, all water users — the surface and the groundwater users — get shut down,” he said.
During an April 4 deposition in Lincoln, Edgerton may not have declared outright support for the Kansas remedy, but he didn't disavow it. For example, a private lawyer representing Nebraska asked Edgerton what his board hoped to accomplish by having him give the deposition.
“Well, the board feels our interests are kind of in line with Kansas' interests,” Edgerton said.
At another point, Edgerton said his district would “favorably receive” a substantial curtailment of groundwater usage.
When reached Friday, Edgerton said surface-water irrigation districts are being forced to help Nebraska comply with the river compact even though they haven't caused the water shortages. Irrigation districts are faced with bankruptcy if they can't get their water, he said.
Whether the Kansas remedy will fix the problem, he couldn't say.
“We don't like the Nebraska remedy,” he said.
Edgerton's district contends that portions of the Republican River basin are over-appropriated and that the state needs to put more strict limits on the amount of water used.
The Nebraska Attorney General's Office declined comment on Edgerton's testimony.
Bob Merrigan, assistant manager of the Middle Republican NRD in Curtis, said he had not read the deposition but figured it wouldn't help Nebraska's chances with the Supreme Court.
“It's not good for Nebraska to have somebody from Nebraska testify against the state,” he said.
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