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Despite Spring Rains, Central Nebraska Farmers Still Face Drought

posted on May 18, 2007

In Nebraska, farmers along the Niobrara River are asking a federal court to order the state's Department of Natural Resources and the Nebraska Public Power District to stop interfering with their water rights.

In a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in North Platte, the irrigators said they were ordered by the DNR to turn off their surface water and groundwater irrigation pumps May 1. That order was lifted Monday, but the DNR says it may reinstate the order in the future.

The farmers allege the DNR formed an "unholy alliance" with the state's largest electric utility that would protect the company's ability to generate power at Spencer Dam.

The irrigators said the company offered to sell water rights back to the farmers and ranchers as long as the irrigators concede that the utility has priority over their water rights... A proposal the farmers are calling "economic coercion."

The case reflects one of the problems that develop when too many constituencies depend on too little water. There's little doubt Nebraska's farmers will have less water for this year's crops. But as Nancy Crowfoot explains, the question is how much less?

Despite Spring Rains, Central Nebraska Farmers Still Face Drought

During two days in late April, central Nebraska received record levels of rain -- more than six inches.Streets flooded … as did farm fields.

To look at the land in Phelps County on these days, it may be difficult to perceive this area is entering its eighth year of drought.

Don Kraus, General Manager, Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District: "We're still in the drought. Our water supply depends upon Lake McConaughy which is some 150 miles up stream and that reservoir is not seeing these kinds of inflow surpluses."

In addition to recreation, water from Lake McConaughy is used to irrigate more than 530,000 acres in Nebraska. More than 100,000 of those acres lie in Don Kraus' district – parts of 7 counties in central Nebraska. When water in the lake is released, it flows east through canals and pipelines that parallel much of the Platte River before being either stored in smaller lakes or reservoirs or dispersed to farmland.

But the lake water levels, which are dependent upon snow melt from Western states, are at record lows -- down to one-third normal levels. For the third year in a row, irrigators are being asked to use less water for their crops. In normal years, farmers are allowed 18 inches of water per acre. This year, the allocation is 6.7 inches.

Farmer Dudley Nelson, sits on the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District Board that determined the allocation limits.

Dudley Nelson, Axtell, Nebraska: "It's part of the business and nobody has done anything to create this problem around here and it's mostly just dealing with the situation as it is."

To irrigate his 1400 acres of corn and soybeans, Nelson uses a canal system to carry surface water and wells with access to groundwater.

With not being allowed to drill new wells for groundwater to irrigate additional acres and having allocation limits on surface water, he has found creative ways to supplement his water supply.

He, and one neighboring farmer, are fortunate to have access to a nearby ethanol plant's waste water held in a man-made pond. It is enough water to take care of 150 acres on his farm. This past winter Nelson also applied for and received water transfers from other irrigators who opted not to use their entire water allocation.

Office staff talk water transfers "They want to transfer 57 acres. They already have 47."

Transfers can be requested for both surface water … and groundwater.

John Thornton, Tri-Basin Natural Resources District: "It's a relatively recent phenomenon and certainly a growing trend I think in the West, of turning water into a commodity that can be bought and sold."

John Thorburn's agency manages, among other things, groundwater in a three county area of Central Nebraska.

John Thorburn "We put a cap on total consumption of water by putting a cap on total irrigated acres. And so by allowing transfers we're hoping to let the market decide what the most valuable use is for that limited resources."

"Letting the market decide", is how one rural community in this water over-appropriated county hopes to attract new industry -- and jobs -- to the area.

Wanting to bring in a value-added business for its agricultural economy, the local economic development group recruited a Michigan-based energy company -- to build an ethanol plant.

Bank President and immediate past president of Phelps County's Economic Development, Scott Latter realizes the challenges of providing water to a company that would need 3 to 5 gallons of water for each gallon of ethanol produced.

Scott Latter, First National Bank, Holdrege, NE:

"Well, with the size of the plant they're building at least our preliminary calculations working with the irrigation district and with the NRD, is that we need to offset uh, groundwater requirements of about 1,038 acres. We do have some brokers out there looking at land that might be available for sale."

At a time when corn prices are in the $3.50 range and the new plant actually wants to purchase corn -- there is some concern about how much water they can obtain to offset their consumption. Even the energy firm knows the risks.

>Tom Randazzo, Alcorn Energy, Troy, Michigan: "Well, when the price of corn is high like it is, we might not get as good of reception as we would have thought. We knew that there were, uh, issues related to, to the water, but if you work cooperatively right from the beginning, um, you, you have some alternatives that can address, address that issue."

Addressing the issue of water and drought seems to be a constant task for those whose job it is to monitor water levels.

Staff person gives report at meeting: "We're running a decent chance we could run out of water."

With the source of surface irrigation water dwindling, and little encouraging news -- even with this year's plentiful Spring rains -- folks here say they must prepare for the worst.

Don Kraus, General Manager, Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District: "We've had discussions about a zero delivery year. If we had to g to a zero delivery year four irrigators that would meant here would be no surface water delivery for an of those irrigators. They would either have to go dryland or have the use of wells."

A zero release would hurt more than those directly dependent upon surface water to irrigate. There is a ripple effect that would influence the groundwater supply in this area.

John Thorburn, Tri-Basin NRD: "We received a lot of re-charge to our groundwater system from that canal system and from the use of surface water, and so that allows us to sustain a much higher level of irrigation than we could otherwise. Typically in terms of re-charge we're looking at between 250 and 350,000 acre feet per year."

While there are challenges, they are not insurmountable – at least not yet. Farmer Dudley Nelson says – even with the restrictions on water use – he has learned to adapt.

Dudley Nelson, Axtell: "And part of the reason that I have more corn is because we're on the reduced allocation on the surface water that's all corn and there's no soybeans because I'm fearful that soybeans would run out of water too soon and then your yields would get hurt more than with corn. There's been some challenges to it. I'd admit that, yeah. But you don't really dwell on it too much."

For Market to Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.

Tags: agriculture crops drought markets Nebraska news rain weather