Land signup sign of new era along Republican River

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The dry joke about farmers being paid not to farm is taking on a new twist -- irrigators being paid not to irrigate.

As of the Aug. 4 deadline, more than five-dozen landowners near the Republican River have offered to stop irrigating about 5,500 acres in return for nearly $1.7 million in cash.

"That's about what we expected," Dave Griffith of the Natural Resources Conservation Service told The Associated Press.

Griffith's agency will pay farmers $100 an acre for three years if they stop irrigating. The State of Nebraska and Republican River Natural Resources Districts will pay $375 an acre, one time.

A total of $675 an acre is an inviting incentive, but there's a catch.

The change is permanent. No more irrigating for you, or anyone you sell the land to. The land doesn't have to lie idle; it can be used for dryland crops or grass, but no more tall, green rows of irrigated corn.

Now, 5,500 acres seems like a lot of land, and it is, but that figures out to only a little over 8 1/2 square miles scattered along the length of the Republican River.

But it certainly won't be enough.

An agreement by irrigation districts along the river to sell their water to the state, to be sent on down to Kansas, will help also, but neither will it be enough.

A return to normal rainfall also will help, but as a Kansas official told Nebraskans recently, don't blame the entire situation on the drought.

Under the 1943 Republican River Compact, and the settlement of a 1998 lawsuit, Nebraska must use no more than 49 percent of the river's water, leaving 40 percent for Kansas and 11 percent for Colorado.

If we keep our part of the bargain -- and there's no guarantee we will be able to -- Nebraska won't have to pay Kansas for the shortfall. But if we don't stop irrigating so heavily along the Republican River, it could cost us as much as $334 million, according to a recent report.

We naturally don't like change, especially changes that reduce income and lower standards of living. There are ways to avoid the down side, but what are they?

It will take special effort and wisdom to find the means to maintain and enhance economic development along the Republican River while still complying with the agreement.

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