Only a few months ago the Groundwater Foundation awarded the Maurice Kremer Groundwater Achievement Award to Ron Bishop, the manager of the Central Platte Natural Resources District (CPNRD) from its beginning in 1972 until last year, when he retired. The much deserved award did not come too soon; Ron Bishop died January 13, 2014 after a long battle with cancer. With his death Nebraska lost a true pioneer in the water world.
Throughout his tenure as manager of the CPNRD Ron provided innovative leadership for not only the district, but for the entire Platte River valley and the State as a whole. In the early years of the NRD, flood control was the major concern. One of the district’s first actions was to build a large flood control project and since that time, over 30 flood control projects have been built by the NRD. The largest project was estimated to prevent $24 million of damages in one flood alone (Know your NRD).
In 1987, two years after the legislature passed the Groundwater Management and Protection Act, under Ron’s leadership the CPNRD voluntarily established a Groundwater Management Area to manage both groundwater quality and quantity. To establish the rules the CPNRD met with farmers, crop consultants, fertilizer industry representatives and others to determine how best to implement the controls. To assure controls are implemented only when needed, the CPNRD established ground-water-level and nitrate level triggers specific to each area of the district, which if exceeded, would trigger controls on groundwater use. To monitor groundwater levels, the district installed 575 monitoring wells, which are monitored every spring and fall to determine groundwater level changes and every third year to monitor nitrate levels.
In addition, farmers throughout the CPNRD, are recruited to work with the NRD in using the best management practices to demonstrate that nitrates can be managed efficiently and effectively while maintaining crop yields. The producer receives weekly irrigation assistance on one field and a complete evaluation of his or her irrigation system. In return, the producer is expected to share the experience with other producers and consider improved irrigation techniques. The CPNRD also provides cost-share funds for tools needed to implement best management practices. Because research indicated that most farmers did not know how much water they were using during irrigation, to simply make producers aware of their water usage, the Board also requires producers in some areas to monitor the amount of groundwater they pump.
At first there was some resistance to these controls (partly because the irrigators had to pay for groundwater testing for nitrates), Ron told me, but with time, the “sharp” operators realized that following the rules resulted in economic gains that outweighed the additional costs, including the costs of the testing. Seeing the benefits, other producers soon willingly adopted the controls.
In the early days of the program it was not uncommon to see greater than 200 lbs per acre, in some cases up to 300 lbs per acre, of nitrates applied. Now the typical application is less than 150 lbs per acre. As a result of these declines in fertilizer use, the nitrate levels in the district are starting to decline. Until the CPNRD Groundwater Quality Management Program was adopted, the nitrate level in the high nitrate area of the district was increasing at a rate of about 0.5 ppm (parts per million) per year to 19.24 ppm. Now there is an average drop of .25 ppm nitrate per year and over the 14 years of implementation, nitrate levels in the groundwater have been lowered from average levels of 19.24 ppm to 15.05 ppm.
In the 1990s concerns over declining stream flows in the Platte River began to increase. In part these concerns were triggered by the need to provide river flows to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act, but there were also concerns about declines in summer flows for surface water irrigators and for municipal wells that relied on Platte River water for recharge. In response the CPNRD under Ron’s leadership applied for and obtained some of the state’s first surface water instream flow rights to provide water for fish and wildlife.
As concerns over the impacts of groundwater use rose, Ron, in what at the time was a very proactive and insightful move, proposed to the State DNR that a cooperative study of how groundwater well pumping impacted the Platte River should be developed. The resulting Cooperative Hydrology Study (COHYST) was initiated in 1998 (http://www.cpnrd.org/COHYST.html). Participants included other Platte River NRDs, the State DNR, surface water irrigation and power districts, and other stakeholders. The collaborative research and modeling developed by COHYST are now the key instruments for determining how wells and other water uses in the area impact stream flows along the Platte River. COHYST is also relied on by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for determining Nebraska’s compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act and by the State DNR and the NRDs. Ron also represented groundwater irrigators in the development of the Platte River Recovery and Implementation Program.
With the passage of the Integrated Water Management law in 2004, a large portion of the CPNRD was declared to be either fully or overappropriated. As required by the new law the CPNRD, working with the State DNR, developed an Integrated Management Plan, which placed a moratorium on new or expanded consumptive uses of water by wells and on new irrigated acres in areas determined to be fully or over-appropriated, required certification of existing irrigated acres, placed restriction on municipal and industrial uses, and in the overappropriated area, took actions and implemented rules to reduce stream flow depletions from groundwater use.
To assist producers and the State comply with the new rules and the Endangered Species Act Ron’s NRD initiated the State’s first and only water banking program, funded by the district, and initiated a cooperative program with several surface water irrigation canals to retire surface water rights, switch surface water irrigators to groundwater wells. The program allowed the canal districts to rehabilitate their canals, which had fallen in disrepair; benefitted the irrigators by switching them to groundwater wells, which can be operated more efficiently and offer a more stable water supply; and benefitted the flows in the river.
Ron was a soft spoken man. During hearings before the Department of Water Resources, his soft-even voice often made this listener quite sleepy, but he was a tireless and effective worker for the CPNRD and the interests of groundwater users. He was truly a force to be recognized during debates over water policy, but worked well with many kinds of people. And, I know from personal experience Ron was capable of tremendous kindness to the people he worked with, even when they did not agree with his point of view. When I last talked with Ron, only a few days before he died, he not only was still discussing water issues, but significantly, was asking with sincere interest about how other people in the water world were doing. Ron Bishop’s spirit and legacy will color the future of Nebraska’s water for many years to come.