A U.S. Supreme Court decision that breathed new life into a decades-long water-rights dispute on the Great Plains has renewed concerns among southern Nebraska farmers about what could happen to their livelihoods.
The dispute centers on the Republican River, from which Kansas contends Nebraska took more than its share of water in 2005 and 2006. In addition to some $72 million in damages, Kansas is seeking to force Nebraska to stop irrigating about 500,000 acres in the Republican River basin _ about half of the basin's 1.2 million irrigated acres and nearly 9 percent of the basin's total 5.8 million acres.
"That would be devastating to our operation and just the whole economy here," said Dan Nelsen, 30, who farms 5,000 acres _ half of them irrigated _ near Curtis, Neb. "Irrigation plays a big part in our operation. It keeps our cow and calf operation viable. Without that, we'd have to liquidate our herd."
The Kansas attorney general's office maintains Nebraska hasn't lived up to its end of a 1943 pact among Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado that governs the Republican River's use. The Supreme Court earlier this week gave Kansas permission to file a new petition over allegations that Nebraska used 25.7 billion gallons more in water from the river in 2005 and 2006 than it was due.
According to Jasper Fanning, general manager of the Upper Republican River Natural Resources District, if Kansas were to get its way, scores of farms in southern Nebraska and even the state's entire economy would be hurt.
"A half-million acres ... that's about a billion dollars of equity that those farmers have in that land," Fanning said. "That billion dollars of equity would evaporate. That equity shows up as collateral on banks' balance sheets across the state."
But most observers in Nebraska say Kansas is unlikely to get exactly what it wants. A federally appointed arbitrator agreed in a 2009 report that Kansas' call for shutting off irrigation to 500,000 Nebraska acres was overreaching.
"It isn't going to happen. That's nonsense," said Ray Supalla, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who has long worked on water issues. "That's tossing around stuff that doesn't do anybody any good. It's fear-mongering that's quite unnecessary and unfortunate."
The growing scarcity of water in the Republican River basin has spawned not only fights among states, but the various natural resource districts that regulate irrigation in it and even family members. Families sometimes don't agree on who has the water rights or how much should be used to grow crops.
Nelsen was a 20-something farmer just out of college and returning to the family farm when he dove headfirst into the water fight.
He was elected to a seat on the Middle Republican River Natural Resources District but was soon ousted after supporting a plan that limited irrigators in his district _ including his own family's farm _ to 8 to 12 inches of water a year to irrigate crops.
Only a few years earlier, he said, it had not been unusual to dump 20 inches of water on his crops every year.
"People next to the river were pretty mad about that plan," Nelsen said. "They'd say, `You're going to sacrifice us?' We had fights at the dinner table. We were fighting with family and friends and neighbors over this whole deal."
But attitudes in the region have changed in recent years, Supalla and others said, and irrigators have shown a much greater willingness to meet the terms of the water compact.
"Everyone realizes there isn't enough water for everybody to have all that they would want or all that they've become accustomed to," Fanning said. "They recognize that that's not possible. But everyone's natural reaction is: `How can I make sure somebody else is the one to give it up?'"