From KUNC (Adam Reyes):
[The North Fork of the Republican River] is one of the only channels in the Republican River basin in Colorado with consistent flows these days.
[Tracy Travis] part-time farmer and school bus driver works here seasonally as a water engineer. His job is to get water flowing from former agriculture irrigation wells north of here “and into a tank which flows over into a 42-inch pipeline that runs about 12 miles down to the river.”
“It’s not a good thing for the people in this area because we’re giving our water up,” Travis said.
There are a lot of mixed feelings about this pipeline among the people who spoke with KUNC. Nebraskan officials see it as a net positive. Ultimately, all agree it must exist. Explaining why requires going back to 1935…
Today, the Republican River in Colorado is described as not even “deep enough to drown in.” But in 1935, it flooded and killed over 100 people in Nebraska and around a dozen in Colorado (if not more) — including four of Republican River Water Conservation District Manager Deb Daniel’s relatives…
Up to that point, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska had managed the river basin’s water within their borders independently.
“There was hardly any irrigation other than surface water irrigation from the rivers themselves and very little in Colorado,” said Yuma County Commissioner and farmer Robin Wiley. “The majority of it was downstream in Kansas and Nebraska.”
After the 1935 flood, the states needed dams and reservoirs to prevent future disasters. The federal government would help build them, but with one condition: the states needed to find a way to manage the river cooperatively.
After three years of negotiations, the Republican River Compact was approved in 1943.
During the three following decades, new technology made it easier to use groundwater. Development of irrigation wells exploded — from around 90,000 in 1949 to over 1 million in 1992 in Nebraska alone — increasing the viability of agriculture “especially in Yuma County, but throughout our entire basin,” Wiley said.
Wiley’s family has farmed here since the 1950s. He says it’s likely that his grandfather and father knew little about the compact, until the now-drained Bonny Reservoir was built right in their “backyard.”
“I think they realized that there was a compact, signed at the time, but no inclination on really how it was going to impact us,” he said.
Even if they had carefully gone through every page of the compact, his predecessors would have missed the part that impacts water users most today — because it wasn’t written in the original document.
“There was no inclination that the groundwater was tied to the surface water,” Wiley said.
If water wasn’t coming directly from the river or the ground immediately around it, Colorado assumed it didn’t affect the amount of water flowing across the border (a primary measurement for compact compliance). That assumption was challenged in 1998, when Kansas sued Nebraska over its groundwater use.
“And then Colorado got dragged into it,” he said. “That brought all this to the head.”
The state engineer manages multiple (but not all) interstate river compacts in Colorado. Dick Wolfe was in that position for about 10 years, until retiring in 2017.
As water levels dropped, the interstate agreements forced officials and local water users to make many sacrifices, like draining Bonny Reservoir on the river’s South Fork in 2011.
“Folks banded together, (and did), I think, a great job looking at everything they could to try to make the best of a bad situation,” Wolfe said. “But I think all in all, when I reflect back on it, I don’t know if there’s too much more we could have done differently.”
Colorado’s efforts to reduce groundwater use, including an agreement to shut down 25,000 irrigated acres in the basin by the end of this decade, didn’t guarantee the state couldn’t fall out of compliance in the meantime. And around 2007 to 2010, it very nearly did.
To heavily simplify the way this compact’s complex math works: water naturally evaporating from Bonny Reservoir made Colorado get less credit for the water it actually sent across the border on the South Fork…
But, out of all the hard decisions made in 24 years of working with water in a state facing river crises in every corner, emptying that reservoir “was the toughest one,” Wolfe said.
The other reason Colorado almost fell out of compliance: quickly dropping North Fork flows.
“We were in the early stages, 2007, 2008 looking at what options are out there to get us back into compliance,” he said. Suggestions included importing water from the Missouri River. “Some of them just didn’t prove feasible.”
Ultimately, the decision was made to buy out irrigation wells from a producer and connect them to a pipeline. It drops the water right before a measurement gauge at the Nebraska-Colorado border.