Groundwater regulators join forces for basin-wide water plan

By GRANT SCHULTE

Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Some of Nebraska’s groundwater regulators are joining forces to ensure that their districts’ long-term water supply remains sustainable in dry years.

The Middle Niobrara Natural Resources District board said last week that it has partnered with four neighboring districts within the Niobrara River basin. The river is a popular spot for tourists in an area covering a large portion of northern Nebraska.

Nebraska has seen a wetter than average year, with record rainfall in parts of the state. The precipitation has eased fears about the kind of drought that swept the state in 2013, but district managers say a basin plan could help them save more of the water that flows through Nebraska in rainier years.

“It’s one more proactive step we can take to look at what we have for water resources,” said Mike Murphy, general director of the Valentine-based district. “This is an opportunity for us to come together as a basin.”

The districts also hope to qualify for state funding under a law approved by Nebraska lawmakers last year. Districts can only qualify for the “water sustainability” money if they work together to create a basin-wide water management plan, instead of focusing on their specific area.

Nebraska’s groundwater is regulated by 23 regional natural resources districts, known as NRDs, throughout the state. The state Department of Natural Resources oversees surface water such as rivers or ponds, but can also intervene when parts of the state overuse the water supply. Regions that draw too much water face restrictions that force them to scale back their use.

The state DNR declared the Niobrara River basin “fully appropriated” in 2008, meaning its water usage roughly equaled the amount of water that flowed into the region. The designation prevented residents in the district from moving forward with major projects that would consume additional water, such as using more land for irrigated crops.

Four districts challenged the ruling, and the Nebraska Supreme Court overturned the department’s decision in 2011.

When a department decision is overturned in court, state law requires the department to review the basin’s water usage again and make a new finding four years later. The department is expected to release a new decision before the year’s end, prompting the districts to seek ways to balance out their supply in advance.

The districts are certifying the total number of irrigated cropland within their boundaries and requesting water usage data from their cities, Murphy said. Many districts have also started to use soil moisture probes, which measure the water content of soil.

The new water sustainability law allowed districts to start creating their own basin management plans without prompting, said Anna Baum, general manager of the Upper Loup NRD in Thedford. Previously, the state had to declare basins “fully appropriated” and then required districts to come up with a plan.

“With all of the NRDs together, we’re able to collect and share our data to see the current water uses, current demand and what we have available,” Baum said.

The plan could help spur economic development by making more water available for industrial uses, businesses, farms and cities, said Dennis Schueth, general manager of the Upper Elkhorn NRD in O’Neill.

Many districts already have water conservation plans within their own boundaries, but a basin-wide blueprint helps ensure that one district isn’t depriving another of water, said Patrick O’Brien, general manager of the Upper Niobrara White NRD in Chadron.

“If your individual plan impacts an upstream or downstream district, it’s not really a great plan for the basin,” O’Brien said. “We’re trying to take a step back, develop a basin plan, and then go in and work on our district plans.”

The districts don’t yet have specific projects in mind but could develop some once they have a better sense of their exact water usage, said Terry Julesgard, general manager of the Lower Niobrara NRD in Butte.

“We’re not really looking at a whole bunch of new acres to be irrigated,” Julesgard said. “Our goal is to make sure we maintain the basin so we can keep everybody profitable.”

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