McCOOK, Nebraska -- Middle Republican Natural Resources District board member Kevin Fornoff of rural Hayes Center, Nebraska, sees the purchase of a 19,500-acre southern Lincoln County farm as an opportunity to "keep us in control" of the water situation in the Republican River Basin.
Fornoff spoke during a meeting in McCook Tuesday morning during which he and fellow board members agreed to participate in the purchase of the "Lincoln Farm" to help Nebraska ensure compliance with interstate water compacts that impact the Republican and Platte rivers.
Joining the MRNRD in the purchase are the Upper and Lower Republican NRD's in the Republican River Basin and the Twin Platte NRD in the Platte River Basin.
Fornoff said the land purchase and the creation of the "Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement Project" will help the three Republican River NRD's retain control of the river's water and its use, "not Nebraska, not Kansas."
NRD officials believe Nebraska's first-ever "conjunctive management project" is a cost-effective way to protect the two river basins, the regions' agriculture economy and taxpayers statewide by ensuring long-term compliance with the 1943 Republican River Compact (which divvies up the river's water among Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas) and the 1997 Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (which requires that the Platte River Basin be returned to water supply-and-demand conditions of 1997.
The Lincoln Farm is being purchased from a group of investors in Delaware for $83 million. Irrigation will be retired on the farm's 15,800 irrigated acres and they will be reseeded to natural grasses. The water that would have been used for irrigation can then be "stored" underground and transported to the Platte and/or the Republican river(s). Jasper Fanning, manager of the Upper Republican NRD, told those gathered at the Tuesday meeting in McCook that the amount of water pumped to the rivers will be less than what would have been pumped to water crops. Fanning said water depletions will not increase.
Clint Sheets of Wallace is impressed that the four NRD's "are working together to solve problems." Roger Goltl of McCook said that he's watched natural springs and spring-fed rivers dry up "since the late '50s," and although he admits that it will be expensive to pump water to and keep water in Harlan Lake, (where inflows into Kansas are measured each year), he's in favor of the new project.
NRD officials expect that the project could add approximately 45,000 acres feet of water to both river basins.
Dan Smith, manager of the MRNRD, said it's likely that significant reductions/restrictions in irrigation allocations (possible during compact call years) will be eliminated by this project.
The Benkelman Post newspaper quotes Nate Jenkins, assistant manager of the URNRD: "The amount of water available under the project would be enough to close most of the gap between supplies and allowable use (under the Republican River Compact) that historically has existed in the Republican Basin during exceptionally dry years. In the Republican basin, for example, the worst year for compact compliance was 2005 when Nebraska had a shortfall of 42,000 acre feet. The project, in conjunction with the URNRD's Rock Creek Project, which is expected to be used next year, will have the ability to make up for a shortfall of that magnitude." (Rock Creek is a 10,000-acre-foot streamflow augmentation project in the URNRD that retired 10 irrigation pivots. If negotiations to purchase additional acres are successful, it will bring the Rock Creek Project closer to the 15,000-acre-foot capacity of the project's pipeline in place, according to the Oct. 4 edition of the Imperial Republican newspaper.)
Jenkins said in a Republican news story, "Two major benefits occur from streamflow augmentation -- water can be provided at the time and in the quantities needed; and it's often significantly less expensive than other methods used to generate streamflow."
MRNRD board member Brad Randel of Indianola said he foresees "finger-pointing" from the public, regardless of whether the board takes action now on the Lincoln County farm purchase and joint augmentation project, or regrets that it didn't at some point in the future. "We have a willing seller, and the opportunity to do it now," he said.
MRNRD president Buck Haag of Bartley said that he doesn't think the new project "will solve any of our problems, but it's buying time to understand the water situation."
It is using occupation taxes, not property taxes, to finance, he pointed out.
MRNRD board member Bill Hoyt of McCook called it "at best temporary, until we can find other avenues worth going after."
Other MRNRD board members, Steve Cappel and Blaine Stinson of Palisade, encouraged the board to continue with programs that retire irrigation acres in addition to the new project.