Republican Riber Basin Water and Drought Portal

Basin History Home

The Republican River originates in the high plains of northeastern Colorado, western Kansas and southern Nebraska. It comprises approximately 25,018 square miles (~16 million acres) of the three states. Thirty-one percent of the basin lies within the Colorado border, thirty percent within the Kansas border, and thirty-nine percent in Nebraska (Bjerke, 2009).

Ogallala Blue, by William Ashworth, describes how the Republican River got its name. It did not originate from the political party like one might think. Mr. Ashworth states that it came from the association the early European settlers made with the area and the Kitkehahki band of the Pawnee Indians. The settlers believed that they had stumbled across a most beautiful place, an “Athens in the wilderness,” and started to refer to the Kitkehahki band as the “Republican Pawnee”. From there the Republican River’s legacy began.

The Republican River Basin was acquired from France in 1803, but settlement of the valley developed slowly until the end of the Civil War (BOR, 2009). According to Kuzelka et al. (1993), the basin had little contact with settlers other than American Indians prior to the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862. The post-war period of westward expansion, combined with construction of railroads through the West and peaceful relations with American Indians, brought rapid settlement to the valleys along the principal streams and rivers. A major increase in population occurred when the railroad system was built in 1878 to 1882 and the first permanent, non-American Indian settlement was colonized at Red Cloud in the early 1870s in the far eastern Nebraska portion of the basin (Bjerke, 2009).

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the residents of the valley battled floods, droughts, and insects (BOR, 2009). These tribulations and several intervals of economic depression contributed to the difficulty of early settlement. A disastrous flood also occurred in 1935 (during the 1930s drought) that took the lives of 110 persons and caused over $9 million in losses. As a result, the residents quickly expanded efforts to develop, control, and improve the land and water resources. Learn more about the history of the basin by reading the Climate and Drought and Water Development sections of this website.

The Republican River Basin and its historic legacy have made their way into several books. The Medicine Creek Journals by D. Jean Smith is an interesting book that takes you back to 1872 when Ena Raymonde emigrated from Georgia to western Nebraska. The book describes the area and difficult living conditions during that time period. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne also refers to the river as a landmark in Chapter 30.

Culbertson, Nebraska during the 1935 flood.

Photo courtesy of NWS Goodland, Kansas.

Ogallala Blue discusses the epic flood of 1935, and describes how the river was home to the only gold rush that occurred in Kansas. During the Great Depression many hopeful people went to the area in search of gold in the river and found nothing. It wasn’t until later that they realized the true value of the Republican River; gold wasn't hidden in the river bed but was really in the water itself.

Today, the Republican River Basin is home to approximately 92,498 people (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). Water struggles still continue in the Republican River Basin but there are many agencies and individuals working to ensure that the resources last for many years to come.

Reference Sited

Bjerke, R. (2009). Stakeholder Perceptions of Water Supply Management and Sustainability in the Republican River Basin in Nebraska. University of Nebraska - Lincoln. School of Natural Resources.