LINCOLN — Nebraska and Kansas attorneys hailed a legal ruling Friday that would cost Nebraska $5.5 million in the dispute over flows in the Republican River.
Kansas had asked a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court for about 15 times that amount — about $80 million — for Nebraska violating a pact that sustains the flows.
Attorney General Jon Bruning said the ruling largely benefits Nebraska, even though he felt $5.5 million in damages was too much.
Bruning said in a statement he was pleased the special master “rejected Kansas' demand for $80 million in damages and future restrictions on water use. Our basin irrigators have worked hard to keep Nebraska in compliance with the compact on an annual basis since 2007.”
Meanwhile, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt issued his own statement Friday, saying he was “greatly encouraged” by the long-awaited ruling.
Schmidt said it was significant that Special Master William J. Kayatta ruled that Nebraska should have to pay Kansas for “unjust economic gains” Nebraska received when it used more than its share of water in 2005 and 2006. It was the first time a so-called “disgorgement” award had been ordered in the dispute.
The recommendation should “send a powerful message to discourage future overuse of water by our neighbors to the north,” Schmidt said.
Of the $5.5 million award, $1.8 million is for disgorgement, or the repayment of ill-gotten economic gains, the Associated Press reported.
The special master's decision is subject to review by the U.S. Supreme Court, which will issue a final ruling sometime next year.
The dispute involved the Republican River Compact, an agreement signed by Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado in 1943 that allocates 49 percent of the river's water to Nebraska, 40 percent to Kansas and 11 percent to Colorado.
Among Kansas' demands was that Nebraska permanently shut down 302,000 irrigated acres and that a river master oversee water use in the Republican basin.
The special master rejected both demands.
The ruling has huge economic implications for the southern portion of Nebraska, where shutting down irrigation from the Republican River and aquifers nearby would have dramatically affected farm incomes and spending in local communities.
The special master also found Nebraska correctly identified a flow accounting problem, which will increase the balance in Nebraska's water account.
Jasper Fanning, manager of the Upper Republican Natural Resources District in Imperial, Neb., called that part of the ruling highly beneficial to irrigators north of the Kansas border.
“Certainly, it appears to be very favorable to Nebraska,” he said. “It could have been $5.5 million better, but he reached the right conclusion on all other items.”