On the North Platte River near Gering, officials plan to divert water that used to irrigate crops into a pit so it can soak back toward the river. The project is just one example of efforts to achieve water sustainability. But big questions remain over who should pay for such projects, and how?
On an overcast October afternoon, Thad Kuntz stands in a stubble-strewn farm field just east of Gering, in Nebraska’s panhandle. Kuntz is a contractor with Adaptive Resources, which has been working with the North Platte Natural Resources District on plans to save water here. Over the past year, they’ve drilled more than 20 test wells on this farm, and Kuntz says they’ve found where they want to build their project.
“One of our most optimal sites was off to the left here, somewhere in the near vicinity of this field,” he said, pointing to a stretch of ground. “We get easy access to surface water from this cement ditch to your right, and we can take it over and transport it into this field and we’ll probably construct our pit off to the left in this field here.”
Until this year, that cement ditch Kuntz referred to carried irrigation water from the nearby North Platte River to crops in this field. But now, the North Platte NRD has leased the water rights on this land. And even though the NRD has yet to construct the pits where they’ll store the water, farmer Mike Hoehne’s already changed the way he operates.
“For this year we’ve already planted some dryland wheat on everything. We did that because we didn’t know exactly where these guys wanted to build their ponds, and didn’t know what their intention was – you know, whether they wanted one pond, two ponds, or more,” Hoehne said. “We had a little flexibility, so we just killed the alfalfa, drilled dryland wheat, and we’re just going to decide what we’re going to do next year. (We’ll) probably come back in with grass, just to use it to graze later.”
Hoehne’s switch, from thirsty alfalfa to wheat, and possibly grass in the future, is consistent with the North Platte NRD’s need to save water, said General Manager John Berge. “We’ve got to look at options like this so we can keep people like Mike in business, while at the same time saving the water and getting it back to the river,” he said.
Berge said the need to save water stems from a 2004 law that requires districts in river basins that didn’t have enough water to allow for new irrigation projects to come up with plans to cut back. “Any acreage expansion of irrigation, from 1997 to the present, which in our particular case is around 8,000 acre feet, we have to restore ourselves to. So we’re getting back to a historic level of irrigation, 8,000 acre feet less than where we’re at today.”
That’s the amount of water it would take to cover 8,000 acres to the depth of one foot. But the district doesn’t want to simply leave that water in the river instead of using it for irrigation. Kuntz said that could bypass farmers immediately downstream, who depend on excess water soaking into the land from fields that used to be irrigated.
“This was irrigated historically. So it has historic inefficiencies, as in irrigation inefficiencies, or the crop can’t use all the water at that particular time. And so we have to maintain that historic inefficiency so we’re not harming not changing the system and harming third-party users,” Kuntz said.
Kuntz said building pits and pumping water formerly used for irrigation into them also stretches out the timing of when water is available. “It comes back all year. The inefficiencies come back throughout the entire year, not just during irrigation season,” he explained. “There’s a lag effect from recharging the water, getting it into the aquifer, and that aquifer moving that water to the river is a lag effect. It takes some amount of time, and it doesn’t occur within the irrigation season. It occurs over the entire year.”
Berge said this five-year project will cost about $560,000, and will save a little over 600 acre feet a year. That’s a start, but he said to save 8,000 acre feet, the district will need some help.
“We can’t do 10 of these. We can do this one. We can probably do a couple of more with the funds that exist,” Berge said. “But ultimately, we’re going to have to leverage our funds with some other resources to be able to accommodate these kinds of projects.”
Where to find those resources is a question the Water Funding Task Force created by the Legislature is wrestling with. One question is whether Nebraska needs some new governmental body to coordinate water projects.
Currently, 23 local Natural Resources Districts, supported by property tax dollars, fund projects with help from the Natural Resources Commission, funded by state tax dollars. Dick Mercer of Kearney is a task force member who serves on both the Central Platte NRD and the Natural Resources Commission. At a meeting last week in Alliance, Mercer compared creating a new organization to reinventing the wheel.
“I really didn’t believe that we needed to go too far in order to have something new and different,” Mercer said. “The main problem we’ve got is to try and figure out how to get the funding to get the projects done that have been neglected for the past few years.”
Other task force members argued the Natural Resources Commission, with three members appointed by the governor and twelve by the Natural Resource Districts, is perceived as too-agricultural in its orientation. They said that limits the funding it can get, at a time when urban areas also face water problems, with aging infrastructure and pollution problems.
Supporters of the existing system said the perception of too much agricultural influence is inaccurate. Task force chairman Clint Johannes said both sides may be right. “I agree with Dick Mercer that the commission has done a good job and that the commission is diverse,” Johannes said. “But I think in order to be successful with broadening and significantly expanding our funding, hopefully, it’ll probably need to be some changes made to the commission to accomplish that. That’s just my personal feeling,” he added.
Johannes said he’s optimistic the task force will come up with recommendations the Legislature can use. “I think we are making progress. Sometimes it may not look like we’re moving fast enough. But I think we’re making progress, and I’m confident that we can come up with something that’ll be acceptable,” he said.
The task force is due to make its recommendations by year’s end. Then those recommendations will compete for funding with everything from prisons to tax cuts, when the Legislature reconvenes in January.