Nebraska farmers file lawsuit against state seeking compensation for diverted irrigation water

Four Nebraska farmers are demanding compensation from the state because it diverted irrigation water away from their crops to comply with the Republican River Compact.

The farmers allege in a lawsuit that their yields were lower last year because they were denied access to water that could have been stored in nearby dams and canals. Nebraska released the water downstream to Kansas to meet its obligations under the 1943 river compact.

Dave Domina, an attorney for the farmers, said Nebraska is placing a statewide obligation on the backs of those farmers without reimbursing them for their losses. The farmers agree that the state has the authority to divert the water, but they contend that the state is obligated to pay them just as it would be if it seized land to build a road, he said Monday.

The farmers are seeking class-action status, which would increase the number of plaintiffs to more than 150 who receive water through the Frenchman Cambridge Irrigation District.

"They couldn't get the water they were entitled to," Domina said.

The amount they're seeking is based on the difference between the corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa that they could have produced with the water and what they actually did, Domina said. The total losses haven't been counted but are expected to cost tens of millions, he said.

The Nebraska attorney general's office will likely defend the state against the lawsuit. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Jon Bruning said Monday that the office hadn't yet been served and would not comment.

The 1943 river compact allocates 49 percent of the river's water to Nebraska, 40 percent to Kansas and 11 percent to Colorado. Nebraska has faced lawsuits from Kansas in recent years for allegedly overusing its supply.

Domina said many farmers in the region suffered financially because the lack of irrigation water disqualified them from receiving crop insurance.

Some farmers had to resort to dry-land farming last year because of the water shortage, said Warren Schaffert, who grows corn on 60 acres within the irrigation district, near the village of Trenton. Schaffert said he relies on water from the nearby Swanson Lake Reservoir to irrigate his crops, but the state opted to release the water downstream.

Conditions this year have improved since the 2013 drought, he said, but the subsoil still lacks critical moisture needed to help corn grow.

"Our lake is even lower now than what it was last year," said Schaffert, who has farmed the land for nearly 30 years. "Last year was terrible."

The lawsuit filed last week was the latest in a series of conflicts between the state and farmers in south-central Nebraska. Last year, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit arguing that a $2.1 million pipeline project would deprive farmers of the water to which they're entitled.

The lawsuit was filed by the Frenchman Cambridge and Bostwick irrigation districts, seeking to block a project that would take 15,900 irrigated acres out of production and pump the underground water into a Republican River tributary. The irrigation districts and farmers argued that the project would bypass the water around the streams, rivers and federal lakes that they use as water sources.