Letter to the Editor

The real reason Kansas isn't getting water

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dear Editor,

The water problem between Nebraska and Kansas will not be settled until the majority of the people in both states get their heads on straight.

This all began with the 1935 flood of the Republican River. This flood cost upwards of 100 human lives, many livestock and wild animal lives plus the loss of much property and even the piling of sand on good farmland so it could not be profitably farmed for many years.

This flood was not caused by underground water; it was caused by runoff rain water.

One of the main instigators of getting something done so this would not happen again was Harry Strunk of the McCook Daily Gazette. As a result a pact was signed in 1943 between Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska allotting Nebraska 49 percent, Kansas 40 percent and Colorado 11 percent of the water in the Republican River.

Then six large dams were built in the late '40s and early '50s:

1. Bonny Dam on the South Fork of the Republican River between Idalia and Burlington, Colo., near the small town of Hale;

2. Enders Dam on the Frenchman Creek that flows into the Republican River;

3. Trenton Dam on the Republican River near Trenton,

4. Red Willow Dam on the Red Willow Creek north of McCook;

5. Medicine Creek Dam on the Medicine Creek north of Cambridge; and

6. Harlan County Dam east of Alma.

They were built for flood control and irrigation. Recreation was not a purpose at that time. The only people who paid anything back toward the construction of these dams are the irrigators, and they are still paying although most of them are not receiving water any more.

Very little of the original fill of these dams came from underground water, the vast majority of it came from runoff rain water, the same thing that caused the 1935 flood.

In the late 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers started the Dry Creek Pilot Watershed because it was the first of its kind in this area. Before they were allowed to build it, the Soil Conservation Service required that a certain percentage of the cropland in the watershed had to be terraced; I do not recall the percentage.

Two of the letdown structures were built on land I farmed west of Bartley at that time. Later, after I moved to where I live now, seven miles northwest of Bartley, I was elected to the Dry Creek Pilot Watershed Board of Directors.

One time, after a fairly large rainfall, the Soil Conservation Service wanted us to take an airplane tour of the watershed with them. We saw all of the water behind the letdown structures, the pasture dams, the pasture pits and the many miles of terraces, many, many acre-feet of water that would have previously flooded down to the Republican River and on to Kansas.

After this, the Republican Natural Resources Districts were formed and more of these watersheds were built in the Middle Republican Natural Resource District and I assume in the other two districts as well; all keeping more and more of the rain water from flooding down the canyons and creeks to the Republican River and ending up in Kansas.

2. Next came minimum-till and no-till farming practices, holding more rain water where it falls instead of flooding down to Kansas.

Consider this: there are approximately 2.4 million acres in the Middle Republican Resource District. The average annual rainfall in the district is approximately 20 inches. This means approximately 4 million acre-feet of rain falls on this District in an average year. Compare this with approximately 210 thousand acre-feet that was pumped from irrigation wells in the District last year. Only 51⁄4 percent as much water was pumped from irrigation wells in the District as fell in rainwater.

So, if we are only holding 51⁄4 percent more water on the land where it falls instead of flooding to Kansas it is as much as is being pumped from irrigation wells in the District. I think the evidence shows we are holding far more than 51⁄4 percent of the rain water on the land where it falls than we were in 1943 when the pact was signed.

As an example, I bought a field in 1960. The road ditch collected runoff rain water from the surrounding area. This water came through a tube under the road and crossed my field. When I bought the field in 1960 I couldn't cross most of this ditch with a 10-foot combine, I had to find a place to cross and then cut along each side of the ditch. Today, due to conservation practices keeping the water from flooding down to Kansas, this ditch has healed so I can cross it anywhere with a 24-foot combine.

I also have a pocket in a field that crosses under the fence into a pasture. Here there are old fence posts that are only sticking out of the ground about two feet. New posts have had to be put in to keep the cattle from walking over the fence. Why is this?

Years ago the water flooded under the fence and kept the ditch swept clean and it got deeper every year. Now, with the conservation practices, weeds and grass have grown in that ditch so it has caught the silt from what little water now comes out of this field and it has built the bottom of this pocket up so there is no more ditch and most of the old fence posts have been covered up.

Due to the conservation practices, our dryland yields have greatly increased since the pact was signed in 1943.

Oh, yes, fertilizer and better seed have played a part but it is the retained rain water that has allowed the crop to take advantage of the fertilizer and seed. I'm sure this increase in production on dry land has far more than replaced the production that has been lost from less water available from the dams to irrigate with.

These conservation practices have also been used in Kansas and their production has benefited from them, too. This has caused less of their rain water to run off of their land and flood down the canyons and creeks to cross the border to Nebraska and the Republican river than did when the pact was signed in 1943.

From all of the meetings I've read about the only water I hear mentioned entering Nebraska from Kansas is from the South fork of the Republican River near Benkelman and joining the North fork of the Republican River near Benkelman. What about the Beaver Creek that crosses the border into Nebraska near Cedar Bluffs, Kan., and joins the Sappa Creek west of Alma before flowing into the Republican River closer to Alma.

The Sappa Creek also crosses the border into Nebraska southeast of Wilsonville and northwest of Norton.

Also, Prairie Dog Creek crosses the border into Nebraska southwest of the Harlan County lake. The lake backs water up the Prairie Dog creek just like it does the Republican River. Who is keeping track of how much less water is flowing into Nebraska and the Republican river from these three creeks than was when the pact was signed in 1943?

3. Also, there are many irrigation wells pumping from the aquifer in Northwest Kansas. If they think irrigation wells are the problem with the flow in the Republican River are their wells being monitored and shut down?

I keep reading of a man in Hayes County who asks why he should be punished when he is not part of the problem. I assume he says this because he doesn't irrigate. But I'm sure he is using these conservation practices on his land to keep the rain water from flooding off his land and down to the Republican River and on to Kansas, so he is part of the problem just like the rest of us.

Another question I have -- three towns joined the Friends of the River, saying why should they pay, their wells don't affect the flow in the Republican River. Why not? They pump from the same aquifer as the irrigation wells.

Years back, "somebody" started the rumor that well irrigation is the reason Kansas is not receiving the water it did when the pact was signed in 1943. People on both sides of the border blindly followed him like sheep to the slaughter without digging for the facts. That man should be tarred and feathered for misleading the people without checking the facts.

Thus I say this problem will not be resolved until the majority of the people on both sides of the border get their heads on straight and realize the real reason Kansas is not getting the water from the Republican River that it was getting when the pact was signed in 1943.


Max Nelms


P.S. Sometimes I wonder if the only solution is to shut the wells down so people can see that it won't solve the problem and maybe that will get them to get their heads on straight.

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  • Well said. Too bad your words will probably fall on deaf ears among the majority of law-makers. Farmers will probably see your truth, but only law-makers seem to think they can find the answer to a problem that law-makers made. The planet is not the same as sixty-five years ago. Good luck.

    -- Posted by Navyblue on Thu, Feb 28, 2008, at 5:33 PM
  • Max is starting to bring up some valid points. It was Uncle Sam who required, and, initiated most of the conservation practices. They were installed to protect and extend the longevity of the structures. They wanted to delay the water and minimize silt. Uncle Sam generally cost shared to the tune of ninety percent on most all of these conservation practices. It stands to reason that our Federal government should also stand ninety percent of the consequences. Kansas likely sees as much, if not more, benefit from the conservation practices as Nebraska.

    -- Posted by Dividedude on Fri, Feb 29, 2008, at 7:58 AM
  • Great comments Max, never forget your history.

    -- Posted by flynh3 on Fri, Feb 29, 2008, at 4:08 PM
  • Yes there are better conservation practices than before, but when did the river and creeks start going dry? It wasn't until widespread drilling of irrigation wells along the Republican. You can blame lack of river flow on whatever you want, but until pivots started going up on ground previously unirrigatable we didn't have problems. You guys need to face the facts; we CAN NOT continue to abuse our natural resources and get away with it. Stop and think before passing the blame.

    -- Posted by plainsman on Fri, Feb 29, 2008, at 7:25 PM
  • Are you a detective Max? You sure put he pieces of the puzzle together right. 20 inches of rain falls on the district and irrigators pump 10 inches on less than 12.5% of the total land mass and the rivers are still not running??? Things have changed since 1943. The only water that can flow down the Republican River is the water that falls on the basin, when runoff ceases to make its way to the river it is hard to recharge the alluvial aquifer thus maintaining virgin stream flows, sure groundwater irrigation plays a role in the declines, but terecces, damns and surface water irrigators taking their share of runoff deplete streamflows too. All waterusers have a stake in compact compliance!! Thanks MAX

    -- Posted by omnibus on Fri, Feb 29, 2008, at 8:37 PM
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