Nebraska irrigators' water source cut off

Jul 20, 2012

A total of 1,106 farmers and irrigators across Nebraska, as of July 13, had been ordered by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to stop pumping water from rivers and streams until drought conditions improve, according to numbers in a Lincoln Star Journal newspaper article.

The river basins affected include the Big Blue, Elkhorn, Hat Creek, Loup, Niobrara, North Platte, Republican, Salt Creek and White.

The current drought experienced by Nebraska has presented challenges across the state, according to DNR. Extraordinarily dry conditions have reduced water supplies available to irrigators and diminished streamflows and water levels in reservoirs. Additional closing notices may be issued depending on flow conditions.

“During times of shortage, junior (newer priority) permits must be denied water so that senior (older priority) permits may receive the full amount of their permit,” DNR stated in a press release. Surface water distribution in Nebraska is based on the prior appropriation doctrine, which is often characterized as “first in time, first in right.”

DNR is the agency authorized by Nebraska statute to regulate surface water.

Under Nebraska law, the department is to assure that all water is being put to the most beneficial use.

Almost 100 percent of Nebraska is considered in moderate to extreme drought condition, according to the High Plains Regional Climate Center based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

About 300 shut-off notices have been sent to irrigators in the Big Blue River basin, which covers Gage, Saline, Seward, Butler, Polk, York, Hamilton and Adams counties.

Those orders were necessary to comply with a compact between Nebraska and Kansas that requires a certain amount of water to flow across state lines in the Big Blue and Little Blue basins.

Target flows vary month to month from May to September. The target on the Big Blue for July is 80 cubic feet per second (cfs). Before the shut off, the river measured 49 cfs at Barneston.

While the shut-off notices do not affect irrigators who pump from wells, those may follow if groundwater levels diminish.

The department also has issued notices for the Platte River, the Elkhorn and Loup rivers to comply with an instream flow water right held by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for endangered species protection. About 200 irrigators were ordered to stop pumping water in this area.

About 335 water right holders in the Niobrara River basin near the Wyoming state line also received notices to satisfy a senior water right held by the Nebraska Public Power District for its Spencer hydroelectric dam.

If dry conditions continue, the department will shut off more irrigators.

Lake McConaughy, the state’s largest reservoir, which supplies irrigation to almost 1,200 irrigators, was at 69 percent of capacity last week.

Jeff Buettner, spokesman for the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, which owns and operates the reservoir, said the district will have enough water to meet its contracts. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor