BEAVER CITY, Neb. (CN) - As severe drought wreaks havoc in the West, stoking forest fires and slamming agriculture, it's creating contention even in areas of the Great Plains that are enjoying a welcome relief from it. But many farmers say their problems come not from the sky, but from underground.
For the second year in a row, farmers from four counties in Nebraska have sued the state and its Department of Natural Resources, claiming their lax policies on groundwater pumping for irrigation have drained surface waters in the Republican River Basin, on which their livelihoods depend.
Farmers in four counties on the state's southern border sued the state in a class action on Oct. 30. The counties - Furnas, Harlan, Red Willow and Hitchcock - are on the Kansas border, and one county away from the Colorado line. They sit atop the enormous, and rapidly sinking, Ogallala Aquifer.
"The State and DNR have allowed excessive groundwater pumping to continue and by doing so it has persistently and continuously deprived the streams of the basin of surface waters," according to the complaint in Furnas County Court. "This enabled persons whose rights to water are not superior to those of plaintiffs to wrongfully appropriate water properly available to plaintiffs."
There is no question the groundwater pumping lowers the water table, and as the water table sinks, reduces water levels in rivers. Over-pumping of Western groundwater, and the devastating effects it would have, were disclosed in a prescient 1977 book by Charles Bowden, "Killing the Hidden Waters."
The Republican River has been a frequent subject of litigation, including a recent $5.5 million judgment against Nebraska at the U.S. Supreme Court. But lead plaintiff Greg Hill and his fellow farmers say their water shortage was not caused by Nebraska's fulfilling its obligations to neighboring states under the Republican River Compact, but from "excess groundwater pumping authorized and directed" by the state for the benefit of one group of farmers over another.
The Republican River Compact of 1943 allocates river water for Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas. But a lot has changed since 1943.
"When the compact was adopted in 1943, the basin in Nebraska contained no more than 200 irrigation wells. By 1960, there were fewer than 4,000 such wells in the basin. By 2000, approximately 18,000 irrigation wells had been placed in the Nebraska portion of the basin to draw groundwater."
Facing statistics like these, there's little mystery why there's so little water to go around, even at a time when the area is relatively unaffected by drought. Only small pockets of Nebraska are experiencing severe drought, though southern Nebraska is classified as "abnormally dry" by the National Drought Mitigation Center , the least intense category of measurable drought impact.
"There is no question that Nebraska has failed to manage water in the basin acceptably," says the farmers' attorney David A. Domina, of Omaha. Domina has made a name for himself in recent years representing farmers whose land fell in the proposed path of the now-tabled Keystone XL oil pipeline.
"Anyone can see that the management has been to use emergency methods and impose the burden on surface water irrigators, while ignoring the consequences of groundwater pumping," Domina told Courthouse News.