Water regulations raise major concerns for area producers

By Jordan Huether

The Upper Niobrara White Natural Resources District (UNWNRD) board of directors is proposing several new amendments to the ground water controls for the Ground Water Management Area (GWMA). The proposed GWMA controls encompass the entirety of the land area within the UNWNRD, including all of Sheridan County, which contains portions of every sub-area except 5. One of the amendments has been particularly controversial with area producers. An amendment to Section 17. Allocations, would reduce the 2015-2019 base allocation for sub-areas 4 and 6 to sixty-five acre-inches for the five year allocation period, which is an annualized allocation of 13 acre-inches, and the 2015-2019 base allocation for sub-areas 1, 2, 3 and 5 to seventy-five acre-inches for the five year allocation period, which is an annualized allocation of 15 acre-inches. Sub-areas 1,2,3 and 5 don’t currently have any allocations on ground water usage.

Many area producers feel that 15 acre-inches per year is not enough to produce a maximum economic benefit yield. Mike Machata, GM at Rolling Meadow Ranch, Inc., states “in some of the heavier soils, we can use 15 inches, but on the lighter sands that are prevalent in this area, we can’t produce a maximum economic benefit yield. We can’t do 200 bushels per acre, we might only be doing 150, and it’s not a healthy 150. You lose money at it. Because of the physiology of the plant, the first 15 inches (of water) is great, but if you don’t have the last 3 inches you could lose fifty percent of your production.”

“So, when they say ‘we’re going to reduce you to 15,’ a farmer can’t just continue at a reduced rate. He has to actually change his cropping scenario. He can’t say, ‘I’m going to produce corn four out of six years.’ He has to produce it maybe only one out of six years, and that has a huge impact on total tonnage that’s produced in the area.”

Andy Kurd, who ranches south of Chadron, stated “our objection, amongst other things, is that nothing triggered requiring them to do any further regulation on those of us that are in the unregulated areas. Specifically, there’s a datum that was established in 1990. When the water gets below that datum, it triggers the board to do something, and that hasn’t happened. So, they’re just doing it, and it has a tremendous impact on things we can do in this area.”

According to UNWNRD general manager Patrick O’Brien, “the trigger points have not been met in two of the sub-areas, however, the rules and regulations do have in there that the ground water may be allocated if it’s determined by the board that it would be in the public interest to do so. That authority comes from the Ground Water Protection Act, which is a state act.”

O’Brien added that, “The district collects data and information on an annual basis for both water use and static groundwater levels and we take that information and we present it to the board and the board can make their decision. They can ask us to re-look at the data, to present it in a different manner, to re-assess it, and so that’s the procedure that was undertaken.”

Agriculture is the backbone of our economy, so even if you are not directly associated with agriculture in any way, these regulations could still have an impact on you. As Machata states, “the reality of what’s happened because of the restrictions in Box Butte and Mirage Flats is that a lot of segments of our agricultural production have moved out of those areas into areas where they can use a higher amount of water - such as potatoes and more sustainable corn production. They still produce corn in Box Butte and Mirage Flats, but at a lesser percentage of their production because it requires more water than the 15 inches that they’re allowing in these other areas. So, when you arbitrarily put this containment figure or allowance on per year, you force those farmers in those other areas then to go to a less intensive regimen of their cropping. When that happens, they buy less inputs, they produce less in terms of the economic impact, their payrolls go down, and then whole segments of that economy that’s very diverse, disappear.”

“There’s a real vibrant seed potato production going on in this area with three different producers, and that provides seed potato all over the nation because of the purity and quality of the seed they produce; and it’s because of what’s unique to our area that they can do that, and that segment could go away.”

“We could lose anywhere from 50-70 percent of our corn production. When we lose that, it has on impact not just on those farmers, but it has an impact, especially on the cow-calf producer. The cow-calf producer’s calf sales rely on sales to local feed lots. Local feed lots are here because we have a stable supply of local corn. This was the first year that the ethanol plant down at Bridgeport’s been able to source most of their corn locally. That’s a good thing.”

“It’s really incumbent to do a plan that maximizes the economic output of the area and at the same time protecting the resource or minimize the detrimental impact of what they’re doing on those producers, because it has a cascade effect on the rest of the economy in the area if we mis-do it. I’m not saying to do nothing, but we need to think about what we’re doing in the process of doing this, because these are real cuts, these are real things that people react to and it will have an economic impact that really does multiply through the economy.”

A few of the alternate ideas proposed by area producers include: allowing farmers in Box Butte and Mirage Flats to transfer water from their less productive fields to their more productive fields; educating the public on better irrigating practices; looking at water banking; and looking at the hydrology more carefully and re-assessing the sub-area borders.

According to O’Brien, “The boundaries were set long before I got here, and so at the time there was public hearings that were based on those boundaries and the integrated management plan. So, there was an opportunity in the past for producers to look at those and review those boundaries and make comments at that time. So, it has taken place, just not with this set of rules and regulations. There are some boundaries that we’re tied to based on the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources’ fully appropriated determination. So, those are set. We can’t change those.”

This is an issue that doesn’t have a clear right or wrong answer, and we encourage you to educate yourself on all sides of the issue. Visit unwnrd.org and read the proposed changes, as well as the current GWMA Rules and Regulations; review the Nebraska Groundwater Management and Protection Act; read Pat O’Brien’s editorial, Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting; read the notice of public hearing; and please attend the public information meeting and public hearing at the Chadron Country Kitchen Meeting Room, 1250 West 10th Street, Monday, March 3, starting at 2 p.m.


Last modified onWednesday, 26 February 2014 15:46

1 comment

  • John Doe
    John Doe Monday, 03 March 2014 13:50 Comment Link

    How exactly is the cow-calf crop hurt from a limiting amount of corn grain in the area? Yes maybe the feedlot industry will be slightly decreased but $4.00 per bushel corn is an impact of an over supply in the corn industry within the last few years anyways. I think monopolized multi-million dollar farm investors who come into areas paying premium prices that regular producers cant afford and not even allowing corn stalks to be grazed that always have been is worse for the cow-calf producer and local economy than loosing corn that would be going to feedlots and not the cow/calf operator anyways. In addition, corn has been raised in many sandy soil environments within the box-butte mirage flats areas with no effect on the amount of corn produced except for in drought heavy years such as 2012, but in that year you use a little more water and cut back on the other years when rainfall is not as restricting. For the producer that manages his inputs well, rotates when needed, and knows how to irrigate properly, average corn yields such as 200 bushel in sandy ground is very attainable. Future generations of farmers are relying on these water restrictions to be put into place, without them we will all lose much more production in the future then we ever will today from putting this regulation into affect.

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