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Drawing arbitrary water boundaries

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

For the future good of Southwestern Nebraska you are urged to vote very carefully and wisely. For all candidates, yes, but particularly for those on the ticket for a position on the Middle Republican Natural Resources District Board. Your vote may be critical for Red Willow County and every other portion of our area bordering the Republican River. The reason is valuation of irrigated verses dryland farm ground and that translates to taxes.

A bit of history may aid understanding. A millennium (long time) ago, tectonic plates collided and the Rocky Mountains were pushed up. The area here had been an inland sea but was also pushed up to slope away from the mountains. Prevailing northwest winds carried loose sand and dust from the rock that was pushed up to form the mountains. The heavier sand particles were dropped by the wind and formed the sand hills. Lighter particles, dust, carried to this area and accumulated over time to form the land surface we see today. Around McCook that dust, now dirt, can be measured as deep as 200 feet. As the dust accumulated, the climate would stabilize at times and this area would be covered with grass until drought came once again and more dust accumulated. Look at any cut bank and you can see ancient horizons where the vegetation stained layers a darker color which we now see as horizontal lines.

During all the time that our soil was building, streams formed to carry rainwater and silt to the Gulf of Mexico. The Republican, with headwaters somewhat east of Denver, is much more ancient than the Platte, which has headwaters in the mountains. Over time, the Republican formed an impervious shale layer only about 30 feet below the surface to separate the Republican aquifer from, and above, the Ogallala. The Ogallala aquifer is massive, in that its northern limit is into the Dakotas and extends south into Texas.

Now anyone who has farmed next to a stream and is a keen observer will discover that the land slopes away from the stream bank off across the flood plain. The reason is that vegetation grows well next to the stream and traps fine particles of silt when the stream overflows in a flood before forming a pool out across the valley. The result is the Republican forms an impervious half-pipe underground (think the snow board Olympic sport) that keeps the Ogallala from draining into it. An example can be discovered by measuring the depth to water on the north and south sides of South Street in McCook. The underground water level on the north may be as much as 30 feet higher than the water level of the Republican just a few yards south. The water to the north is from rain water and lawn irrigation in the city that has percolated into the ground yet can't run into the river just to the south.

Now that impervious layer, all the way to the surface, parallels the river on the north side running the full length of the river in Nebraska. That means that all water that accumulates underground, we call it an aquifer, can only drain into the river in a few places, those usually being the streams entering from the north, the Medicine, the Red Willow, the Blackwood, the Stinking Water, and especially the Frenchmen River. The Frenchman drains a huge bowl of trapped water from Enders, Imperial, Grant on across that whole area north and west to the watershed of the South Platte.

During the time that the Indians ruled this land, they divided their tribal areas along natural boundaries, for example, streams. Europeans settled this land and with their sense of order drew arbitrary boundaries of state, county and township and section lines. Then over time, Kansas and Nebraska governments realized that water for irrigation and the multitude uses for mankind had value and made demands for their own share. Typically, the rule makers had very little understanding of how an aquifer works and made arbitrary decisions that have come to haunt us.

In the late 1800s, farmers along the Republican pooled their resources and created irrigation canals fed by blocking off the stream with a low sand diversion dams. All irrigation at the time was by flood, and a majority of the water applied to the land soaked into the soil to a depth unavailable to the crops. That soaked-in water and what ran out the row ends eventually made its way back into the river aquifer.

Then during the '50s, the Bureau of Reclamation put in a series of dams along the Republican, Bonny in Colorado, Swanson and Harlan County on the main stream, Enders on the Frenchman, Butler on the Willow, plus Strunk on the Medicine. All those have irrigation systems below the dams save Bonny, which was planned but never developed. Below Alma, the majority of the irrigation system is in Nebraska, but also runs into Kansas.

Then came the center pivot irrigation systems which could draw from deep wells directly from the aquifers that had previously filled the Republican. Pivot irrigation is much more efficient than flood, meaning that a much larger percentage of the water applied to the crop is used by the plants and there is very little recharge below.

The pivot irrigation systems proliferated, so that now very little water flows into the Republican particularly from the Frenchman. That is the rub, Kansas feels cheated and the all-knowing courts decided that Nebraska must pay. Their ruling, although correct, is based on a different world ag-wise from the 1940s when both states signed on the line.

Actually the Indians had a better plan, as they divided territory by natural markers. Had Nebraska done so when they set up the NRDs they could have had subdivisions that talked to each other. As it is, the Lower and Middle Republican NRD have majority alluvial irrigators, those fed by the stream, and the Upper Republican NRD has a majority deep-well pivot irrigators who have lowered the water level in their aquifer so it no longer runs into the river. Each NRD naturally protects its own interests rather than having to play together.

Now it was the state government that made the agreements between Kansas and Nebraska, not the irrigators who bought and paid for the flood control dams and all the pivot irrigation systems. Assessing the whole state to pay Kansas for the court-levied fine would be unpopular, so Nebraska has decided that it is the irrigators who must pay. Then to further show their lack of understanding, or cooperation, it is deemed that the flood irrigators along the banks of the Republican must shut off their irrigation systems and the pivot operators who caused the majority of the problem will be last to shut off.

How is the local tax payer affected? Well, when by decree, irrigation land is made dryland, the valuation decreases by about 75 percent. Less valuation, less tax collected. Guess who will make up the difference -- it is you my friend, you and all the rest of the property owners. Even sales tax receipts for the City of McCook will decrease. Note that the Culbertson-Trenton school districts are contemplating an expensive building program as is the City of McCook with their new municipal, police and fire building. Tax money.

It doesn't have to be that way. Past agreements provide for reimbursing the irrigators along the streams who will be first cut off. If the property owners were reimbursed then the not-irrigated land could still be valued as irrigated and the total valuation would not change. The only problem is that those on the Natural Resources Boards never seem to fund the reimbursements, maybe because they farm well away from the streams and are guarding their own interests.

Vote wisely remembering that it is the incumbents that have help shape the mess that is staring us in the face!

That is the way I saw it.

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Well done. You have a thorough understanding of water realities in the mid to high plains. Here in Arizona, the picture is also very complicated; I am still trying to get a working knowledge of where our water comes from and how it is divided up. Several days ago we took a road trip south from the Valley of the Sun, through miles and miles of very productive farm land: milo, cotton, olive groves, melons and other crops I didn't recognize. I tried to trace the water sources on websites and maps from the Bureau, Salt River Project and etc., and discovered that the water in those canals is piped over the mountains from the Colorado River. Other canals come from the Gila and the Salt River basin impoundments. I wish you would come to visit and help me learn more. I'm just curious mostly, in part because water is so very interesting and partly because I believe the future of the West depends on water, which is always in short supply and getting shorter. Really good article, brother.

Thanks again.

-- Posted by Virginia B Trail on Tue, Oct 12, 2010, at 2:22 PM

Holy fly boys, 3 weeks without slamming Senator Nelson or President Obama?

Are you feeling ok, Mr. Dick?

-- Posted by goarmy67 on Thu, Oct 14, 2010, at 9:31 PM

Well Said, Dick. 'We, the People,' had better get reacquainted with being in charge of the Political, and Ecological System's, or Prairie Folk may become scarce again, as they try to escape to 'Greener Waste-Lands.'

-- Posted by Navyblue on Fri, Oct 15, 2010, at 11:49 AM

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Dick Trail
The Way I Saw It