The effects of strained water resources are showing up in the courtroom.
A landmark State Supreme Court ruling is opening the floodgates to eroding Nebraska's longtime legal barriers between water in streams and water that's in aquifers, experts said Friday.
In a decision that will intensify the water-rights debate in Nebraska, the court said a Panhandle ranch can sue irrigators who pump from the ground for taking too much water and drying up a stream.
"We're in the era now of trying to put surface water and groundwater together, and the big issue is where the line will be drawn," said David Aiken, a water-law authority at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
As drought continues to grip the West, conflicts and lawsuits between water users along the Platte and Republican Rivers in Nebraska could spread to farmers and communities statewide, Aiken said.
At issue is a lawsuit filed in 2002 by Spear T Ranch near Bridgeport. Rancher Rex Nielsen of Gering said water pumped from neighbors' wells caused Pumpkin Creek to be dry most of the year, preventing Spear T from growing hay to feed its cattle.
The court recognized the ability of surface-water users to seek protection when adversely affected by groundwater pumpers, said attorney LeRoy Sievers of Lincoln. He represented the Nebraska State Irrigators Association in the case.
Some people have predicted wars over scarce water sources. Whether there are military battles or not, the legal wars have begun.