HOLDREGE (AP) -- Shutting down irrigation in parts of the Republican River basin during dry years in order to send Kansas more water is being considered, but only as a "last resort," Nebraska water officials told about 300 farmers on Thursday.
The caveat didn't placate some in the crowd who came to hear officials address how to ensure that Nebraska doesn't again break a three-state compact by not sending Kansas the water it is owed. The agreement that guides the use of the river includes Colorado as well.
"A significant source of my income comes from irrigation, so it would have a huge effect," said Doug Schluntz, who farms near Huntley and stood in the back of the jammed auditorium as the state discussed the possibility of an irrigation shutdown in some parts of the basin.
The possibility is being floated following an arbitrator's opinion this summer in a dispute between Nebraska and Kansas.
The plan came after weeks of speculation, with some in the crowd accusing NRDs and state water officials of coming up with the proposal without public input. DNR officials and NRD district managers said scientific models and technical information had to be nailed down before unveiling the plan.
Other meetings are planned in October and November at open meetings at Republican River Basin NRD's, before the "adoption process" begins in December.
Officials say they haven't yet determined which areas might be off limits to irrigation during so-called water-short years -- defined as years when Harlan County Lake near the Kansas border is less than about one-third full. Early estimates provided to The Associated Press last month showed that more than 330,000 acres could be affected. There are about 1.2 million irrigated acres in the basin, which is one of the most productive farming regions in the most heavily irrigated state in the country.
"It will be a loss of revenue for this part of the state," said Matt Harrison, who farms near Republican City. "Who's going to make up for the loss of state sales and income taxes -- Lincoln, Omaha, Kearney?"
Officials have said that water-short years occur between 25 percent and 33 percent of the time.
Barring an extreme drought, there probably won't be another one for least two years, because Harlan County Lake is currently full.
In July, Colorado-based arbitrator Karl Dreher said Nebraska owed Kansas just $10,000 for overusing river water in 2005 and 2006 -- a fraction of the $9 million Kansas demanded -- but that Nebraska's plan for future compliance with the compact was insufficient. Dreher didn't suggest a solution.
"The State of Nebraska will be in compliance in the future. Noncompliance is not an option," said Brian Dunnigan, the state's top water official. Asked if the plan to stay in compliance might include shutting down irrigation, he said "yes, but there are a lot of things we would consider before we got there."
Those mainly include pumping groundwater into the river to bolster flows, and buying surface water -- basically paying farmers not to use the water that is mainly stored in reservoirs -- so that it flows down the river and can go to Kansas instead of being spread on farmers' fields.
The latter option has been used in the past, and officials with Natural Resources Districts in the Republican basin say they are in talks about building a pipeline to send water from the Little Blue River basin to the Republican.
The pipeline would cost millions and transfer water the Army Corps of Engineers will pump from an old ammunition field near Hastings to clear the area of contaminated water. The water would be cleaned before being transferred.
But two state senators warned the crowd that there may not be enough money to take those and other actions needed to avoid an irrigation shutdown -- suggesting that a shutdown may not end up being a last resort after all.
"We don't have any money to buy out irrigators," said Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege. "We don't have any money for augmentation plans (to pump groundwater into the river)."
Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, whose district includes a large portion of the river basin, agreed, and pleaded with farmers to lobby against an irrigation shutdown.
"It's going to hit your pocketbooks hard if you don't stand up," he told the crowd.
Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte is on the legislative appropriation committee and told the crowd that money is tight in the state, with a 3 percent cut in state funding last year.
Still, what is done with the Republican River has the consequences for the Platte River in his district.
Hansen said he has told senators, "Do it right because the next is the Platte."
State officials said they hope to have final details of a compliance plan by next month and could begin adopting it by December.
While there is unease over any irrigation shutdown, some water officials say doing that during water-short years is better than having hard, yearly caps on irrigation -- as long as it is part of a package of tools to stay in compliance.
"You will not see this adopted by itself," Dan Smith, manager of the Middle Republican Natural Resources District, said of irrigation shutdowns.
On the Net:
Nebraska Department of Natural Resources: http://www.dnr.state.ne.us/
-- Lorri Sughroue, McCook Daily Gazette, contributed to this report.