It’s hard to call any legal ruling that costs taxpayers $5.5 million a victory, but in the long-running dispute between Kansas and Nebraska over Republican River water, that’s how Nebraskans can view a special master’s decision.
After all, Kansas had sought roughly $80 million, mainly for the economic gains of irrigated agriculture from river water that Kansas claimed Nebraskans shouldn’t have pumped. Kansas officials also sought a shutdown of 302,000 irrigated acres and a river master to oversee future water use in the Republican basin.
But the State of Nebraska, local natural resources districts and Republican River basin irrigators have tightened controls on irrigation since the start of the court fight about overuse of Repubilcan water by Nebraskans under terms of a 1943 interstate compact. Under that compact, Nebraska gets 49 percent of the river’s water, Kansas, 40, and Colorado, 11.
It is noteworthy that Kansas is to receive $5.5 million in the dispute and that $1.8 million is a “disgorgement” payment for ill-gotten gains. It also is a reminder of the need for Nebraska and local districts to remain vigilant in balancing compact requirements against local needs.
The special master in this case, Judge William J. Kayatta Jr., said that clearly in his ruling: “Nebraska’s incentive to extend its recent record of strong compliance should be increased by its knowledge that, in the event of a relapse after this date, Nebraska will have a difficult time parrying a request for disgorgement.”
But the judge noted the strong efforts Nebraskans have made in resolving this dispute. “First, Nebraska’s substantial expenditures in 2006-2008 on water to mitigate its noncompliance were not the actions of a party callous to the downstream ramifications of its conduct,” he wrote. “Second, Nebraska has presented a credible case that it began turning over a new leaf in 2007 and thereafter, planning for compliance with more care and urgency.”
Things could have gone much worse, as Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning told The World-Herald. They didn’t because Bruning’s office did its job in advocating for the state.
They didn’t because Nebraskans, after too long looking the other way, recognized a problem and worked together on solutions. Together, they adopted painful but sensible regulations that helped irrigators work their way toward compliance without wrecking the agricultural economies of communities across southwest Nebraska.
They did things the Nebraska way.