By Steven G. Seglin, Board Member of the Ground Water Foundation
Wide publicity has been given to the lawsuit filed in the United States Supreme Court by State of Kansas against the State of Nebraska, claiming that Nebraska has used more Republican River water than its allotted share under the Republican River Compact. Kansas claims that this overuse is the result of excessive pumping of ground water by irrigators throughout the Republican Basin.
Little publicity however, has been given to the efforts of natural resources districts and irrigators in the Republican River Basin to conserve the very ground water that Kansas claims to be overused. These conservation efforts by NRDs and irrigators emanate from a combination of regulatory policies initiated by the Republican River Basin natural resources districts and best practices initiated by irrigators.
The management of ground water by the Lower Republican Natural Resources District (LRNRD or the District) used for irrigation purposes and the best practices of irrigators in the District, exemplify the efforts made in the Republican River Basin to conserve ground water. The conservation of ground water in the District has in large part been the result of the adoption by LRNRD of a series of 3 Integrated Management Plans (IMPs) over a 10 year period of time.
A summary of the efforts made by the LRNRD and the irrigators within the District to conserve ground water over the last 10 years follows.
The District in December of 2002 established a moratorium on the drilling of new wells and as a result, no new wells have been drilled in the District since that date. In December of 2004, the District established a moratorium on the expansion of irrigated acres and none have been added since that date. In order to be able to better manage ground water irrigation, the District required that all acres that were irrigated with ground water be certified as irrigated acres by the District in 2004. In 2005, the District required that flow meters which measure the total amount of ground water pumped by each well be installed on all irrigation wells.
In 2005, LRNRD began a program to restrict the amount of ground water that irrigators could pump within the District (called allocations). The program started with limiting pumping to 11 inches per acre per year in part of the District and 12 inches in the remainder of the District. After the imposition of these limitations, water withdrawn from wells went from an average of 11.24 inches per acre in 2004, to an average of 7.74 inches per acre in 2005. During the period from 2005 to 2007, ground water pumped from wells was further reduced to an average of 7.16 inches per acre.
In 2008, LRNRD reduced allocations even further to 9 inches per acre per year throughout the entire District. The allocations established in 2008 were extended for a five year period through the irrigation season of 2012. Ground water use by irrigators during this 5 year period was further reduced to an average of 6.33 inches per acre per year.
In 2011, LRNRD continued the 9 inches per acre per year allocation for another 5 years, and further established strict limitations on the management of ground water during conditions of drought. In addition, the District set a goal to reduce overall pumping of ground water throughout the District by 25% from the 1998 to 2002 average.
Since 2003, pumping of ground water in the LRNRD has been reduced by 52%. Many factors have contributed to this reduction including the imposition of allocations, no-till farming practices, more efficient irrigation delivery systems, and the use of soil moisture sensors. Since 2005, the District has temporarily or permanently retired over 17,000 acres of irrigated farm ground resulting in a savings of nearly 13,000 acre feet of water per year.
In 2012, the LRNRD partnered with the Upper and Middle Republican NRDs and the Twin Platte NRD to purchase a 19,500 acre farm (mostly irrigated) in Lincoln County south of North Platte. Approximately 15,000 acres of this farm are located in the Republican River Basin and approximately 4,500 acres are located in the Platte River Basin. The purpose of acquiring this farm in Lincoln County is to augment the flow of water in the Republican River during dry years and augment the flow in the Platte River during certain times to protect endangered species. The four NRDs formed a separate entity called the Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement Project to acquire the farm and to implement the augmentation of river flows in the Republican and Platte Rivers. The plan of implementation includes the retirement of approximately 16,000 acres of irrigated land and constructing a pipeline to both the Republican and Platte Rivers. Having the ability to pump water into the Republican River during dry years will enhance stream flow assisting Nebraska with its compliance obligations under the Republican River Compact. Pumping water during certain times into the Platte River will assist Nebraska in its efforts to comply with the Platte River Implementation and Recovery Program which benefits endangered species.
The purchase of the farm in Lincoln County is being funded by an annual $10 per acre occupation tax levied on all irrigated acres (both from ground water and surface water) in the Republican River Basin and within the boundaries of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District.
The three NRDs in the Republican River Basin along with irrigators throughout the basin have worked hard to conserve ground water as good stewards of the land and to assist the State with meeting its obligations under the Republican River Compact. Sometimes people who live in urban areas forget how important farming is to rural Nebraska and to the overall economy of the State. The efforts to conserve ground water by the Republican River Basin NRDs and irrigators throughout the basin should not go unrecognized.
Most of the statistical information for this blog was taken from a paper prepared by Mike Clements, General Manager of the Lower Republican Natural Resources District. I am also the Attorney for the Lower Republican Natural Resources District.