LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The Nebraska attorney general's office has spent nearly $3.1 million in its legal fight with Kansas over the Republican River basin and is now asking lawmakers for another $600,000, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The budget request, which will go to the 2014 Legislature, comes as the state prepares for oral arguments next year before the U.S. Supreme Court. The states are fighting over a series of water-augmentation projects designed to help Nebraska meet its obligation to Kansas under a water-sharing agreement.
The dispute revolves around the Republican River Compact, an agreement signed by Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado. The 1943 compact allocates 49 percent of the river's water to Nebraska, 40 percent to Kansas and 11 percent to Colorado.
Nebraska has faced lawsuits from Kansas in recent years for allegedly overusing its supply. Kansas is seeking more than $72 million in damages, plus the shutdown of 325,000 acres of groundwater irrigation in Nebraska.
David Cookson, the chief deputy attorney general, said the state has spent nearly $3.1 million over a seven-year period on the legal dispute. He said the additional funding was needed to pay for outside technical consultants and travel to the basin in southwest and south-central Nebraska.
Without the funding, state attorneys can't adequately defend the state against Kansas' claim for damages or its demand that Nebraska halt its groundwater irrigation in the basin, Cookson said.
"We're not going to shut down half of the irrigated acres in the basin," Cookson said. "That's billions, long-term, in economic activity in the state. We've been very successful, and in order to continue, we have to fund our efforts."
Cookson said the office has worked to reduce costs by relying more on the state's in-house attorneys. In January, a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court recommended that Nebraska pay $5 million in damages for its use of the Republican River Basin — far less than the $80 million demanded by Kansas.
Kansas sued Nebraska over the Republican River in 1998. The two states settled the case five years later, with Nebraska spending about $11 million, but Kansas contends Nebraska violated the terms of the agreement. Water lawsuits among states are filed directly with the Supreme Court, which usually appoints a special master to review evidence and make recommendations to the justices.
The Republican River rises in Colorado, crosses the northwestern tip of Kansas into Nebraska, and then runs through Nebraska before re-entering Kansas in its northeastern corner. In Kansas, it joins the Smoky Hill River to form the Kansas River.
Nebraska lawmakers have formed a state task force to identify water conservation projects throughout the state. The chairman, state Sen. Tom Carlson, said lawmakers have not yet developed a list of projects but will have one ready by December.
Sen. Mark Christensen, of Imperial, said the lawsuit to protect water rights was critical to basin farmers, who would otherwise have to rely on rainfall for their crops. Christensen, who represents basin farmers in the region, pointed to recent water-augmentation projects designed in the basin to help conserve water and keep Nebraska in compliance with the compact.
"We've gotten ourselves in a lot better position than we've been in a long time," he said. "But I'm sure we'll still be on water issues for years to come."
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