Water woes widespread across Nebraska

Invasive species are among plants growing on the shore of Harlan County Lake. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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August 28, 2013 - 6:30am

There are water problems all across Nebraska. Water shortages, water pollution, and water infrastructure problems range from the state’s western border to Omaha. Attempts are underway to address the problems. But those attempts are raising some questions including about the costs.

On a recent muggy afternoon at southwest Nebraska’s Harlan County Lake, a carpet of green plants covers the flats near the lake, left exposed when the water receded. In the middle distance, a boat plies the placid water of the lake, created by the massive Army Corps of Engineers dam in the background.

It’s a peaceful scene, so you might be surprised when Park Manager Larry Janicek says this is also the scene of an annual air battle. “We did a lot of aerial spraying (see video) and it cost a lot of money,” Janicek said. “We were using some expensive chemicals, and without the help of them, we could have never battled that monster.”

That “monster” was not some creature from the black lagoon. It was plants – invasive phragmites and salt cedar – which, along with Russian olive trees, were choking the river and sucking up water.

The thirst of those plants threatened Nebraska’s ability to send enough water downstream to meet its legal obligations to Kansas under the Republican River Compact. Hence the air battle, along with ground actions like removing trees and islands from the river.

The aerial spraying began here in 2007, and is continuing. It is done late in the growing season, because afterwards, river water can’t be used for irrigation for 120 days. Dan Lyle, a helicopter pilot who has sprayed along the Republican, said there are also restrictions on using the chemicals around municipal water sources. “That’s just as a safety factor to be sure that there’s no additional chemical in their water,” Lyle said. “It’s not that it’s not safe. It’s just that they do that to try and hedge on the safe side.”

Along the Republican and the rest of the state’s rivers, officials say spraying needs to continue, at an estimated cost of more than $1 million a year. 

Fifty-some miles northeast, in Hastings, that city faces water pollution from a different source: over-application of nitrogen fertilizer. Marty Stange, environmental supervisor for Hastings Utilities, said plumes of groundwater with nitrate concentrations above federal limits will reach the city’s drinking water wells in about two years.

“We really have two options: one is to just treat all the water, and that’s about a $75 million with another $25 million over the next 20 years of operation,” Stange said. “But to really do some out of the box thinking, we’re looking at aquifer storage restoration, a dual pumping system, some focused treatment using this wastewater for irrigation, and we can really bring that down to around $46 million.”

Stange said other cities and towns around the state face similar challenges.

In Omaha, another problem’s demanding attention, says Joel Christensen of the Metropolitan Utilities District. “There’s about 2,800 miles of water pipe in Omaha. Twelve hundred of those, approximately, are cast iron. And some of the cast iron is up to 100 years old,” Christensen said. “To get up to the point where we would replace one percent a year is in the range of $20-$25 million a year.”

Christensen, a member of a task force that’s studying funding for water projects in the state, said it is too early to say if Omaha will ask state taxpayers to help pay for the project.

In southwest Nebraska, the $24 million Rock Creek augmentation project is pumping water that used to be used to irrigate crops downstream towards Kansas. Near North Platte, the N-CORPE project, to pump groundwater into both the Republican and Platte Rivers, is projected to cost $130 million.

Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege said projects like those are good for complying with the interstate compact. But Carlson said they don’t necessarily help Nebraska reach water sustainability. He defines that as on average, across the state, not using more water than the supply provides.

Carlson suggests sustainability requires a timetable for reducing water use. Not everyone agrees. Jasper Fanning, manager of southwest Nebraska’s Upper Republican Natural Resources District, said people should use less water. But Fanning doesn’t like the idea of a timetable. “I think choosing an arbitrary timeline for that is somewhat reckless, because you impose an economic cost, and you don’t know what technologies are going to come,” Fanning said.

Carlson said Nebraska has two options: cut back on the amount of water it uses, or increase the supply. And that, too, costs money. “I’m convinced that we need to do the very best job that we can with existing structures and maybe new ones, and new ones are difficult because it’s a long time coming,” Carlson said.

Nevertheless, Carlson looks forward to getting to a place  “where in the western part of the state and the northern part of the state we hold back more water, in good times, so that in dry times we’ve got it to use.

“That’s how we increase our supply,” he said.

The Water Funding Task Force is continuing a series of meetings (see schedule) across the state, and is to recommend in December how to prioritize and pay for projects.  The Nebraska Legislature is expected to take up the matter after lawmakers reconvene in January.


Play the video below to see aerial spraying along the Republican River. Video is from "Reclaiming the Republican River," a film by Becky McMillen of Insight Creative Independent, partly funded by the Nebraska Legislature. The narrator is from BASF, the chemical company that manufactures the herbicide being used.



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