River project promises to restore balance

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Roger Stockton is director of the Southwest Nebraska RC&D, but at times he must feel like a circus performer.

That's because he, his agency and the Natural Resources Districts with which they are cooperating are walking a tight rope.

On one side is Kansas and the possibility it could demand the share, at all costs, of the Republican River Water to which it is entitled.

On the other are environmental interests, who would leave all of the trees and brush along the river in place, come hell or high water.

The Resource Conservation and Development District, as well as the NRDs, are charting a course somewhere between the two treacherous shores.

Using a $174,000 grant from the Legislature, they will thin out Russian olives and red cedars -- which are basically water-hungry, invasive "weeds," as well as too-thick growth of other native trees, in three, one-mile demonstration plots along the river. One of the plots will be in each of the Upper, Middle and Lower Republican Natural Resource Districts.

For three years, water use and conservation will be monitored in each of the sites, to see if it will help the state pay off its water debt to Kansas.

Stockton doesn't have unrealistic expectations for the project. Perhaps 50 acre feet of water could be saved for each mile of river subjected to thinning process, he estimated.

But if that turns out to be true, it could make up about a third of the water shortage Nebraska has to make up.

Ideally, Stockton said, a "savanna forest" will be created along the river, with grasses and vegetation growing between scattered trees. There should still be plenty of wildlife habitat, without solid masses of cedar and Russian olives choking out native plants and using up excessive amounts of water.

Cutting down thousands of trees along the Republican River may seem like a radical step to take.

But we need to remember that the trees involved don't really belong there. They've only sprung up since the construction of flood control and irrigation dams prevented the scouring out of trees and underbrush by yearly floods.

The "Republican River Basin Riparian Management Study and Demonstration" only promises to restore some of the balance nature intended.

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