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Decades old agreement forces Colorado to drain valuable lake

9:50 PM, Aug 26, 2011   |    comments
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Nebraska, and ultimately Kansas, are about to receive approximately 4 billion gallons of water from Colorado's Bonny Reservoir in Yuma County, under a decades old agreement between the three states to share water.

Bonny Reservoir, which sits on the south fork of the Republican River, holds the best potential to make up a water debt owed to Kansas under the 1942 Republican River Compact, Colorado officials say.

The compact collected dust for years until Kansas water officials noticed they were not getting enough water from Nebraska's and Colorado's portion of the river.

In 2003, Kansas won a Supreme Court battle to force Nebraska and Colorado to make up for water they reserved from the river in violation of the compact.

"We have spent four years looking for a better solution than draining Bonny," Colorado Assistant Director for Water Alex Davis said. "It is really a tragedy that we have to take this step."

Water has already drained from Bonny Reservoir to make up for the debt owed to Kansas, but not enough, and a drought complicated issues even more.

Davis and other Division of Natural Resources employees have considered multiple options for years to keep Bonny open and pay back Kansas; including taking water from farmers, and building a pipeline to funnel water into the Bonny Lake from the northern fork of the Republican River.

Both options have proved too costly, she said.

Davis has fielded calls and petitions from residents in Eastern Colorado to save the reservoir's water, most of which is scheduled to flow into the south fork of the Republican River after Labor Day.

The reservoir has served as a popular place for boaters, campers, and fishermen over the 45 years since it was built as a flood protection mechanism along the river.

"We are drying up out here," Kirk resident Audrey Hase said. "And we are giving away our last drop!"

Hase has led an effort among business owners and residents to make a last ditch effort to save the reservoir from draining.

She has hit many roadblocks because of the limited options to send water to Kansas under the compact.

"Why aren't we negotiating on this compact?" she said. "Why aren't we standing up for ourselves?"

She says her claims have leverage, especially after a written response she received from Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in July.

"We know that many Kansans and other citizens regret the draining of Bonny, which has served as a valuable recreational area for many residents of Northwest Kansas and surrounding communities for decades," Brownback wrote Hase. "Because Colorado is a party to this compact, it is a named party in the lawsuit, but Kansas seeks no relief against Colorado at this time."

That letter threw a wrench into negotiations about Bonny Reservoir, Colorado officials say.

"It's given people a whole different perspective on how Kansas feels," Colorado State Engineer Dick Wolf said. "It's wrong. It's not an accurate statement."

Wolf says Kansas water engineers have not budged on proposals to keep Bonny Reservoir from being drained.

Colorado officials say they have proposed keeping water in the reservoir and, in essence, giving or selling Bonny's water rights to Kansas.

In return, Colorado would not be penalized under the Republican River Compact.

"They were not interested in pursuing that option at all," Wolf said. "They pulled it off the table."

Brownback was not available for an interview about his position on Bonny, according to a spokeswoman.

Business owners are preparing for a drastic reduction in cash flow once the water drains.

"Of course, it's going to put me completely out of business," Papa's Bait and Tackle Owner Kenneth Condrey said. "If there was any way possible we could stop it, I truly feel that it needs to be stopped."

Condrey's shop near the reservoir has seen a dip in business, in recent years as the water has slowly dropped.

Both Wolf and Davis say water may remain in Bonny Reservoir after it is drained. Any fish still in the water would relocate to other lakes, they said.

The state park where Bonny Reservoir is located will turn into a wildlife refuge.

The state is also looking for someone to take control of the visitor's center and other buildings surrounding the reservoir.

Wolf says they are also negotiating with Kansas with hopes to refill Bonny Reservoir in the future.

Still, Eastern Colorado residents like Hase are not giving up in the fight to save Bonny from being drained.

"We are part of this state and we have something to offer out here," Hase appealed. "Please, fight for us, fight for our water out here."

Hase has started an online petition to Keep Bonny Open. You can find the petition here:

(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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