Nebraska Water Users Could Have Avoided a Compact Call Year- Op Ed

Nebraska Water Users Could Have Avoided a Compact Call Year- Op Ed


Nebraska water users in the Republican Basin could have avoided a Compact Call Year had Kansas and their supporters accepted augmentation projects and alternative compliance plans in 2013. Nebraskan's should know that we can achieve our water management goals, but it will take the cooperation of all parties if we want to minimize the economic impact of compliance.

A February 13, 2014 letter from Brian Dunnigan, Nebraska Department of Natural Resources Director, responded to claims made by the United States Bureau of Reclamation, the State of Kansas and the other supporters of Kansas in the lawsuit against Nebraska. The letter outlines that had Kansas, and their supporters, accepted the compact compliance plan and augmentation projects in 2013 there would not have been a Compact Call Year and the Bureau and its customers in Nebraska (Frenchman Cambridge Irrigation District & Bostwick Irrigation District) along with other surface water users would have had access to increased water supplies. In 2012, Frenchman Cambridge Irrigation District and Nebraska Bostwick Irrigation District filed a lawsuit in Federal Court against the State of Nebraska and the NRDs challenging Nebraska's compliance plans, which prohibited the augmentation projects operation in 2013. Although the lawsuit was later dismissed, the court action delayed the project for a full year.

The Compact Call Year also adversely impacted the social and economic wellbeing of the Republican Basin. Groundwater irrigators faced increased regulations to reduce pumping by approximately 50,000 acre-feet and all surface water irrigators had to bypass over 20,000 acre-feet. All of this could have been avoided if the augmentation projects could have moved forward in 2012 and 2013 and empty reservoirs used to store and release the water for compliance. However, they were delayed by the actions of the Nebraska surface water irrigation districts in the basin and the State of Kansas.

These specific augmentation projects were N-CORPE and Rock Creek. In 2012, four of Nebraska's NRDs purchased 19,500 acres in Lincoln County, Nebraska, that lie squarely between the Platte and Republican Rivers. About 15,800 of those acres have been irrigated. Ceasing irrigation in those acres will allow water that otherwise would have been used for irrigation to be stored in the underlying Ogallala Aquifer. The stored water can then be piped from approximately 30 groundwater wells into the Republican and Platte Rivers when needed to meet river flow obligations. The Rock Creek Project involved the purchase and retirement of 3,300 acres of irrigated land north of Parks, Nebraska, upstream of the Rock Creek State Fish Hatchery. The water that was formerly used to irrigate those crops will be piped through a 10-mile pipeline into Rock Creek during dry periods to increase Republican River flows.

It is very clear that had there not been opposition to the N-CORPE and Rock Creek augmentation projects along with Nebraska's compliance efforts by the state where these same parties sided with Kansas in the lawsuit against Nebraska, there would not be a reason for introduction of LB 1074 in the Nebraska Legislature. LB 1074 aims to reduce groundwater irrigation state-wide so surface water irrigators might have more water. The bill will not assist Nebraska in the lawsuit or compliance; rather it hinders those goals at great economic expense. These ill-guided efforts could all be avoided by more cooperative efforts aimed at minimizing the impact of compact compliance on all water users.

Under Nebraska's and the NRDs' plans, more water would have been available for Nebraska surface water irrigation in 2013 and the Compact Call year could have been avoided. The intent of LB 1074 is to declare river basins in the state over-appropriated requiring the shutdown of groundwater irrigation in the State of Nebraska with no defined benefit. On top of that, another bill, LB 1005, would further remove local decision making and water management decisions, by establishing a "Surface Water and Ground Water Review Board". This new ‘review' board would adopt their own set of rules and regulations pertaining to water management across the entire state. This approach would over-ride the authority of Natural Resources Districts, with decisions being made at the state level, with little consideration for local water management determinations.

Governor Dave Heineman, Attorney General Jon Bruning, the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources and the legal team that defended Nebraska deserve praise for their diligent efforts to defend Nebraska's economy and the right to use water in the basin. The groundwater irrigators in the basin also deserve praise for their compliance with regulatory actions and willingness to work with the NRDs and the State of Nebraska to develop workable, common sense, Nebraska-based water management plans that will keep Nebraska in compliance while helping preserve natural resources for generations to come.

All Nebraska water users should strive to work together to make the most of the opportunity we have to continue to manage our water for the greatest benefit of all. We should avoid at all costs the unnecessary attempts to do through legislation what Kansas could not achieve in the courts.

John C. Turnbull, is the General Manager of the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District headquartered in York. He is currently on his 37th year at this post.