Nebraska Preserves Water Flows Under Agreement with Wyoming

April 20, 2001

The 15-year lawsuit over North Platte River water rights in Wyoming and Nebraska is closer to being over.

Details of an agreement between the two states were announced recently. Among the proposed changes are limits on irrigation in Wyoming and increases in water monitoring while allowing Nebraska to retain its right to 75 percent of the river’s water flows.

The U.S. Supreme Court must approve the settlement, which Gov. Mike Johanns said was in everybody’s best interest after an expensive and lengthy legal battle.

"The settlement is not only good for Nebraska, but it also works for Wyoming," Johanns said at a news conference where details of the settlement were revealed.

Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer said in a statement that the possibility of a lengthy trial played a part in the decision to settle.

"While Wyoming’s case was strong and I am confident that Wyoming’s legal team would have put forward the very best defense possible to Nebraska’s claims, there is always uncertainty in litigation," Geringer said.

That uncertainty also motivated Nebraska to settle, Johanns said.

In the 15 years since the lawsuit began, each state has spent about $20 million on its case. Johanns called that an unfortunate investment in time and money.

Under the agreement, Wyoming is limited to the number of acres that can be irrigated and how much water can be used for that irrigation and use of water in dry years will automatically be regulated by Wyoming.

There are also new requirements for water use monitoring and data collection, and a committee is formed to collect information and resolve disputes before they reach the level of a lawsuit.

Nebraska retains its right to 75 percent of the river’s water flows from eastern Wyoming into Nebraska that was part of a 1945 agreement.

Placing water use restrictions on Wyoming irrigators will ensure that flows on the North Platte River are sufficient for Nebraska users, Attorney General Don Stenberg said.

The added monitoring and data collection requirements will help ensure that terms of the agreement are followed, Johanns said.

"This won’t work if we walk away from it," he said.

The settlement was heralded by representatives of Nebraska irrigators who benefit from the North Platte River, as well as Audubon Nebraska, the Central Nebraska Public Power District, and state Sens. Roger Wehrbein of Plattsmouth and Adrian Smith of Gering.

The conflict dates back to the 1930s.

A 1934 lawsuit filed by Nebraska was resolved in 1945 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which established the distribution of the river’s water flows at 75 percent for Nebraska and 25 percent for Wyoming.

Nebraska’s lawsuit against Wyoming in 1986 accused the state of using more than its share of water as allotted in the 1945 decree. Since then a number of interim agreements have been reached on some issues, but the heart of the lawsuit has not been settled.

The North Platte River begins in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and loops through Wyoming before merging with the South Platte River in central Nebraska. The rivers form the Platte River, which flows eastward to the Missouri River just below Omaha.

Source: U.S. Water News Online