By Russ Pankonin and Josh Sumner
The Imperial Republican
Even before the Republican River Compact Settlement in 2002, a great deal of tension existed between the three natural resources districts (NRDs) in the Republican Basin—the Upper, the Middle and the Lower.
That tension level escalated last week when the Lower Republican NRD targeted use in both the Upper and Middle Republican NRDs.
As part of their proposed integrated management plan (IMP), they want to see groundwater use in the two upper districts reduced.
After Kansas filed suit against Nebraska, many in the LRNRD believed Nebraska’s problems with delivering sufficient water to Kansas came from groundwater pumping and subsequent depletions that occurred over the years in the URNRD.
Irrigators in the URNRD felt the drilling of more than 500 irrigation wells in the LRNRD after Kansas filed suit was an attempt to grab a bigger share of basin water.
When the settlement agreement allotted 44 percent of the state’s allocation to the URNRD, 30 percent to the MRNRD and just 26 percent to the LRNRD, many in the Lower felt they got shorted on allocation.
Despite some resentment, the three NRDs formed a basin coalition to address compact issues and examine other options for keeping the state in compliance with Kansas according to the settlement.
Eventually, the LRNRD pulled out of the coalition, opting instead to chart their own course for their district.
In 2007, Governor Dave Heineman told basin irrigators the state would impose mandatory allocations to insure compliance unless the NRDs started their plans to reach compliance.
Over time that led to the development of IMPs by the NRDs in cooperation with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
After an arbitrator ruled in 2009 that Nebraska’s IMPs didn’t insure compliance with the settlement in water-short years, DNR wanted to see new IMPs from the NRDs to address that issue.
Options available to NRDs
According to Upper Republican NRD Manager Jasper Fanning, the basin NRDs then sought input from DNR on what options would work to insure compliance.
Fanning said DNR responded, offering three options for consideration that would keep the state in compliance via regulatory action.
The first option called for drastic, permanent reductions in allocations while the other two options required the shut-down of wells in areas near rivers or streams in the basin.
Both the URNRD and MRNRD adopted new IMPs in 2010 that allowed for regulatory well shutdowns in a worst-case scenario, while focusing on shutting off the least amount of wells possible.
The URNRD is continuing to look at other options, such as retiring acres and augmentation projects, to avoid well shutdowns in a water-short year.
URNRD, as well as MRNRD, targeted by LRNRD’s plan
The LRNRD held a hearing last Thursday, Jan. 13, in Alma on their proposed plan to address compliance in water-short years.
What concerns the Upper and Middle districts is language in the Lower’s IMP that requires further action from the Upper and Middle.
The Lower notes they will stay in compliance only if the URNRD and MRNRD reduce their consumptive use by growing only historic crops. They do not consider corn, soybeans, alfalfa or other “high-water use crops” as historic crops.
Essentially, the Lower’s IMP says irrigated corn can no longer be grown in the Upper and Middle Republican districts.
They also target groundwater declines that have occurred in the URNRD since development began in the 1970s.
Their IMP sets forth that groundwater pumping in the basin must be at levels to return the Ogallala Aquifer to within 9.99 feet of pre-development levels.
According to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln study in 2008, much of the URNRD has seen groundwater declines from five to 40 feet, with some small areas showing declines of 50 to 60 feet since development began.
To recover those areas to within 10 feet of pre-development levels, well shutdowns for decades would be required.
The LRNRD also wants to revisit the allocation of water supply to the districts agreed to in the settlement.
They want this revisited by the end of 2011 and every five years thereafter.
Fanning said he’s disappointed the Lower continues to point fingers at the other districts in the basin.
He doesn’t believe the Lower’s plan is a serious approach to address compliance issues.
Unlike the Upper and Middle districts, Fanning said the Lower drafted their own plan with little cooperation with DNR.
“They seem to think our pumping causes all the problems,” Fanning said.
However, he said that due to proximity of surface water, groundwater pumping in the URNRD causes less streamflow depletion per acre than groundwater pumping in the LRNRD.
He said it appears the LRNRD wants to shift the focus away from them by concentrating on groundwater declines in the URNRD.
In reality, all groundwater pumping affects streamflows, Fanning said.
Just recently, a LRNRD board member reiterated to an URNRD irrigator that pumping in the URNRD is the cause of all the problems in the basin.
During last week’s hearing, the Lower’s plan drew support from surface water interests, including the Bureau of Reclamation, surface water irrigation districts and the Army Corps of Engineers.
However, irrigators in the Lower requested the use of carry-forward if they don’t use their full allocation in one year. That is not included in the current proposal.
LRNRD Manager Mike Clements said carryforward is a “two-edged sword.” It can help conserve water but it also increases pumping in dry years when pumping needs to be curtailed.
Don Adams, director of Nebraskans First, which supports groundwater irrigation, testified the state’s options will lead to economic disaster for the basin in terms of lost yields and land valuations.
He said control can’t be local if the district rubber-stamps state-dictated policy.
He warned Kansas appears obsessed to see groundwater wells shut down in Nebraska.
It’s not about getting their share of water, he said of Kansas, ‘it’s about shutting us down.”
In their plan, the LRNRD reserves the right to challenge any state statute or regulation. They also contend the State of Nebraska must compensate groundwater users if their right to use water is curtailed or taken away in order for the state to achieve compliance with compact.
The LRNRD and DNR will meet in early February to discuss the IMP in more detail.
LRNRD board members expressed disappointment that DNR representatives were not present at the hearing.