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Potential conflicts between surface water users and ground water users are posing perplexing challenges to Nebraska policy makers. Surface water law is the rule of priority, "first in time is first in right," as administered by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Ground water is primarily the rule of correlative rights, as administered by local natural resources districts (NRDs). Traditionally ground water irrigators have been subject to few restrictions on drilling new wells or how much water could be used (except in the Upper Republican NRD in southwest Nebraska). Now the DNR can ban new wells in overappropriated and fully-appropriated river basins, and has done so in much of the Republican, North Platte, and Central Platte river basins. Nebraska water law has always been subject to interstate agreements, such as the Republican River Compact (RRC), and federal laws, such as the Endangered Species Act.
Until recently, Nebraska water law has treated surface water and ground water as being separate and distinct, despite the hydrologic connection. However, the 1997 Platte River Cooperative Agreement and the 2002 settlement of the RRC litigation have forced Nebraska to begin recognizing the impact that the pumping of hydrologically-connected ground water (HC ground water) has on streamflow.