Was it wisdom or was it foresight encouraged the development of irrigation in this area of Southwestern Nebraska? A year of drought as we are experiencing at present with dryland crops failing and the irrigated looking to make outstanding yields puts irrigation in the wisdom column. How did it happen and will our good fortune continue?
Well over 100 years ago Red Willow and surrounding counties were settled and farmed. Perceptive farmers, mostly fine German stock, noted that rainfall was on occasion a tad sparse, yet water in the Republican River flowed past unused. An association, the Meeker Canal, was formed and plans made to construct an irrigation canal alongside the south side of the Republican. The river was diverted a short ways east of Culbertson and the head ditch worked its way along the south side of the valley towards Indianola. Several thousand acres of rich bottom land were then watered to reliably raise corn, potatoes, sugar beets, alfalfa and even a few truck garden plots raising fruits and vegetables. Water rights, some of the very first in the state were filed with Nebraska.
The Meeker was a low tech operation. It was dug by horse pulled "slips" and "fresnos" in large part by the farmers themselves who were to benefit. A "ditch rider" was hired to keep track of water allocations so that each farmer could use only his share. When repairs were needed the local farmers pitched in contributing labor and equipment as needed.
All was not perfect. Many times the water available late summer, the river ran dry, was less than desired by the farmers prescribed to the ditch. In that case the farmers with the superior right, the land that was up stream and that had signed up first got the water they needed and those on the tail end got less. Then, too, the Republican River flooded irregularly and the diversion dam, simply a ridge of sand pushed up across the stream, was damaged or wiped out completely. The farmers that were supposed to pitch in and help reconstruct the dam were busy tending their own crops and it was hard to get them to come help.
Prior to the World War II era very few drilled irrigation wells existed along the entire length of the Republican. Pumping of ground water was simply not a factor affecting the flow of the river.
In 1935 a particularly devastating flood caused huge property damage and loss of life along the entire length of the Republican River in Nebraska. Conversation minded leaders led by McCook Gazette Editor, Harry Strunk, farmer and later politician Don Thompson and others appealed to Washington for funds to build a series of large flood control dams along the river. Those dams would impound water that could also be used for recreation and irrigation. Good plan but how to pay for building those dams?
The federal government provided the funds to build in the form of long term low interest loans. Those loans were to be paid back by a tax placed on the land below the dams that were served irrigation water. The costs were divided among the three states were the Republican meandered, a small portion to Colorado where the river originates and Bonny Dam was to provide irrigation water. Nebraska was assigned a larger portion for the irrigation projects below the dams at Trenton, Enders, McCook, Cambridge and Alma and the irrigation projects along the river as it flowed through Kansas the rest. The cost of building the entire project was divided by the historical flow of water taken at the point where the river crossed each state line. The legislatures of each of the three states met and agreed to the settlement.
Thousands of acres of productive farmland now irrigated. The economies along the river greatly stimulated, flooding stopped and tax revenues for local entities much greater than ever before. The loan for building the flood control dams was being paid back. Residents far and wide were enjoying boating, fishing, and simply living along the newly created lakes. What could go wrong?
Well for one, Colorado elected to not develop irrigation below their Bonny Dam and the taxpayers statewide had to pick up the burden of paying back Colorado's portion of the loan agreement. No big problem for Nebraska and Kansas who were assessing their irrigated lands to make the loan repayment.
Enter technology and the development of efficient ground water pumps to irrigate land that was not under the "ditch" and thus could not be assessed taxes to pay back the dam building loans. Then Nebraska innovators developed center pivot irrigation systems that are much more efficient at distributing irrigation water across the land than flood irrigation could ever be. Additionally a pivot can irrigate over irregular terrain that could never be leveled for flood irrigation. Center pivots proliferated across the land, all fed by wells tapping into underground water resource that we are blessed to have in this area.
Unfortunately all is not well in the world of irrigation concerning stream flow and underground water levels. Our mamas taught us that "You can't get something from nothing" and water follows that rule. Due to underground pumping less water flows into the creeks, and other lesser tributaries that feed the river. The surface water that now flows across the state line into Kansas has diminished and Kansas is crying foul they are not getting their fair share. That share based erroneously on the percentages originally agreed upon to pay back dam construction costs.
It is a mess. The dams built for flood control are doing their job. The construction costs are being repaid to the Federal Government. People are enjoying lakeside recreation in a parched countryside. Irrigated crops are thriving and the dryland crops are hurting from drought. Court is in session and the lawyers are getting rich with Kansas hoping to reap a huge windfall from Nebraska taxpayers. It is a shame that rational people did not get together to solve the problem of decreased stream flow due to ground water pumping and come up with an equitable solution. Obviously it was too complicated a problem to be solved by politicians protecting their own special interests. So the whole thing was thrown into the court system "With liberty and justice for all!" Fat chance! Keep your hand on your back pocket because your wallet is about to be raided.
That is the way I saw it. Dick Trail