Nebraska needs to leave more water in the Platte River for endangered species. A new proposal aims to do that, by using well water for irrigation instead of river water, in certain areas. But some farmers say that could upset a delicate balance.
That balance was on the mind of Tom Schwarz as he showed a visitor around his farm, 15 miles south of Lexington, in central Nebraska, on a hot summer morning.
"Where we live here, everything has to be irrigated," Schwarz said. "We just don't get enough rain to do much without it."
Especially in a dry year, a series of days like this could make crops start shriveling. But in a nearby field, the corn was lush and green. At the edge of the field, water gushed from an irrigation pipe into furrows between the rows of plans.
This field, and about 100,000 acres of farmland here in Gosper County and neighboring Phelps and Kearney counties, are irrigated by water diverted from the Platte River. The water comes from Lake McConaughy, formed when Kingsley Dam was built across the Platte in the early 1940s, and is delivered to fields by a network of canals. But the Platte is "over appropriated" - there are more demands on it, than water in it.
Six years ago, Nebraska agreed to leave more water in the river for endangered and threatened species like the whooping crane. Some of that's already happening, but more is needed.
At a meeting last week, Ron Bishop, manager of the Central Platte Natural Resources District, described a new proposal.
"The proposal basically is to convert the surface irrigation project to a groundwater recharge, and use groundwater as a supply instead of surface water for irrigation," Bishop said.
In other words, flows would stop being diverted from the Platte River into canals and irrigation ditches to water thirsty crops for Tom Schwarz and his neighbors. Instead, Bishop offered financial help to dig wells and replace water from the river, or surface water, with water from wells, or groundwater. River water would still go into the canals, but only to soak into the ground to replenish those wells.
The idea is intriguing, according to Dave Aiken, agricultural economics professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Aiken said irrigating with surface water is less efficient than with groundwater.
"If you're part of a surface water irrigation district, then the water has to be used from the reservoir to the irrigated farms. And in Nebraska, that's typically through unlined canals," he said. "And so there's a substantial amount of water that doesn't make it to the farm. That's where the groundwater recharge comes from, is the leaking out of the canals."
Aiken said typically, twice as much water has to be removed from the river as the amount that actually reaches the crops. That may be inefficient, but it has benefitted areas like the one where Schwarz's farm is located. Since the days before irrigation, the water table in the area has risen, in some places by more than seventy feet. That lets farmers like Schwarz drill wells to supplement the surface water they get from the Platte.
While he's not opposed to trying something like the new proposal, Schwarz said the result has to strike a balance.
"I think you utilize the groundwater supply - the storage supply, essentially the lake that's underneath us - you utilize it when you can, but you are also in a position where you can replace it when you need to," he said. "In a short-term way, you could remove water from the groundwater system. But it's not a perpetual thing where you're just in a steady decline. You've got to be prepared to, at some point, bring that water back into the system."
Supporters of the new proposal say they don't want to lower the water table in the area currently irrigated with water from the Platte.
But at a meeting last week, farmers' reaction to the plan ranged from skepticism to hostility. One of those venting his frustration was Rook Thorell.
"We have a wonderful system here, between our groundwater and our surface water," he said. "And I feel, as a farmer, that there're some outside forces that want to come in and screw it up."
The next step is for the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, which runs the canals that would be affected by the proposal, to evaluate the details. That evaluation could weigh the interests of farmers like Thorell in the balance with some of those "outside forces" he referred to.