Colorado to pay Nebraska $4M in Republican River settlement

North Fork Republican River via the National Science Foundation.

From the Associated Press (Grant Schulte) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

The settlement announced Thursday requires Colorado to make the payment by Dec. 31, 2018. Colorado officials did not admit to violating the Republican River Compact, and legislators in that state must still approve the funding.

The agreement seeks to resolve disagreements between the states over Colorado’s past use of water. The Nebraska governor’s office says it will allow both states to continue to work cooperatively.

The settlement bars Nebraska from suing Colorado for alleged violations on or before Dec. 31, 2013.

It was signed by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson as well as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman.

The Republican River’s South Fork near Hale, Colorado, with the region’s seemingly endless fields. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Jeffrey Beall

From The Courthouse News Service (Ted Wheeler):

Subject to approval by the two states’ legislatures, the payment is due by Dec. 31, with the money earmarked for surface water projects that will bolster water management plans in the basin, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said in a statement.

“This settlement provides funds that could be used in the Republican River Basin within Nebraska and creates additional opportunities for cooperative water management between the states,” Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said.

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts echoed the sentiment of cooperation: “Nebraska and Colorado can now continue to focus on providing their water users with greater certainty and to pursue other collaborative opportunities to benefit their shared economies.”

The 452-mile-long Republican River originates in the high plains of Colorado and cuts across sections of western Nebraska and Kansas. The Republican River Compact of 1943 allocates river water for the three states, with 49 percent going to Nebraska, 40 percent to Kansas and 11 percent to Colorado.

The river basin has been a frequent subject of litigation, including a 2014 Supreme Court judgment that ordered Nebraska to pay $5.5 million to Kansas for its own excessive water use upriver.

Colorado officials said the threat of more litigation and its associated costs was a driver in the new settlement. Coffman said the agreement “avoids the costs and uncertainty of litigation and furthers the principles of the compact.”

The region has been relatively free of major drought in recent years, which has helped states stay in compliance despite exponential growth in the number of irrigation wells. According to the United States Drought Monitor, the Republican River Basin region is drought-free or abnormally dry, the least severe drought rating.

But the threat of drought and overuse of groundwater has kept agriculture officials and farmers on edge for years. Nebraska farmers have been suing the state over groundwater for years, in what has become a near-annual tradition.

Steve Nelson, the president of Nebraska Farm Bureau, welcomed the new agreement.

“We applaud the collaborative efforts of both states to address past issues and to work together, putting both parties’ interests on a better path for shared water use,” Nelson said.

Western water law, immensely complicated by decades of litigation in multistate jurisdictions, is further complicated by “use it or lose it” allocations that often discourage conservation.

From The Yuma Pioneer:

The Republican River Water Conservation District’s “compact compliance pipeline” continues to pump ground water into the North Fork of the Republican River near the Colorado/Nebraska state line.

The pipeline first started operating for compact compliance in January 2014. It is part of Colorado’s effort to come into compliance with the Republican River Compact, a 1942 agreement among the states of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, concerning water rights along the Republican River.

A stipulated agreement among the three states requires Colorado to send a minimum of 4,000 acre-feet through the pipeline each year. The Republican River Compact Administration groundwater model approved by the three states is used each year to analyze and determine how much more water above the minimum needs to be delivered each year.

Approximately 11,000 acre-feet was delivered into the North Fork in 2017.

The final portion for 2017 was delivered from October through December after the irrigation season was completed.

The pipeline continues to operate as Colorado delivers the 4,000 acre-feet minimum prior to the upcoming growing season.

RRWCD General Manager Deb Daniel said the estimate of how much above the minimum will need to be delivered in 2018 will not be made until September.

Various factors figure into how many acre feet need to be delivered each year — such as the amount of groundwater pumping throughout the Republican River Basin with the amount of precipitation and where it falls within the basin. The more rainfall in Colorado’s portion of the basin can actually increase the state’s obligation to the downstream states.

Daniel noted the state has not had any problems meeting its obligations using the pipeline. Water for the pipeline comes from a series of wells located north of Laird that were purchased by the RRWCD as part of the pipeline project.The appropriation for all of the water rights has been designated to 15 wells within the pipeline project. Currently eight wells are connected and delivering water into the pipeline. In the near future, as the need to off-set depletions and deliver additional water increases, the remaining seven wells will be added to the pipeline system.

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