LINCOLN, Nebraska -- Following action by four Natural Resources Districts in the last week, a purchase contract has now been signed that officials hope will bring the group a step closer to launching a stream flow enhancement project expected to aid and protect the Republican and Platte Rivers, local schools and other political subdivisions that rely on property tax revenues, and both agricultural and municipal water users.
Kansas has sued Nebraska over Republican River Compact compliance and is seeking the permanent shutdown of roughly 300,000 irrigated acres in the basin that stretches from Haigler to Hardy, Neb. The project being pursued by the NRDs could help prevent a shutdown of that magnitude in the future. Such a shutdown would have staggering financial consequences, reducing property tax revenue from irrigated land by millions of dollars annually and potentially shifting more of the property tax burden to owners of residential, commercial and other non-irrigated property.
According to a release from the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts, the stream flow enhancement will protect the existing property tax base of irrigated land and be paid for by irrigators via the occupation tax on irrigated land, not by all property owners.
"When it comes to providing long-term financial stability to our schools throughout the Basin, and assuring our kids get the first-rate educations they deserve, this project is a wise choice," said Joe Anderjaska, President of the Hayes Center Public Schools Board of Education and a Middle Republican Natural Resources District board member. Anderjaska is also president of the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts.
Lacking a stream flow enhancement project such as the one NRDs in the Republican Basin expect to operate, compliance with the Republican River Compact would still be achieved, even in dry times, because of comprehensive water-management plans they have developed with the State of Nebraska. But doing so would require the use of severe regulations that could completely shutdown irrigation in some areas in dry years. In the Middle Republican NRD, for example, all irrigators could face drastic regulations in dry years. Should exceptionally severe regulations be imposed throughout the Middle Republican NRD, for example, lost revenue from decreased yields could be roughly $200 million or more in just one year.
"The local economy would be a disaster and local businesses would be in trouble," if severely reducing water-use allocations was the only option used by NRDs to maintain compliance, said state Sen. Mark Christensen. Christensen, who supports the stream-flow enhancement project, said: "I support the ability to keep Nebraska in compliance with the Compact through the use of the occupation tax. We have to rely on projects like this to keep water allocations at reasonable levels."
The project proposes to transport water, via a pipeline, to the Republican and Platte Rivers that otherwise would have been consumed by crops on a large swath of irrigated land in southern Lincoln County. A significant amount of engineering design must still be completed, but it is expected that the project could add a total of roughly 45,000 acre feet of water to both the Republican and Platte Rivers in years when needed to maintain compliance with both the Republican River Compact and the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program. In the Platte, NRDs are responsible for returning that basin to water supply-and-demand conditions that existed in 1997 and ultimately reversing an over-appropriated designation to fully appropriated status under state law.
The amount of water available under the project is expected to 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.
Water-supply alternatives to meet legally mandated objectives in both the Platte and Republican Basins could be much more expensive than costs associated with the project now being pursued by NRDs. Including land, project development and operations, producing water under the project for both river basins could cost between $300 and $500 an acre foot. By comparison, leasing surface water from irrigation districts in the Republican Basin can cost between $2,000 - $3,000 an acre foot. Permanently retiring irrigated acres close to streams without piping the water and instead allowing groundwater to seep into rivers and tributaries to increase flows can cost approximately $3,000 an acre foot, or more.
Under the proposed project, water that otherwise would have been irrigated and consumed by crops on a Lincoln County farm with 15,800 irrigated acres will instead be piped into the Republican and Platte Rivers when needed. The NRDs involved in the project -- Twin Platte NRD and the Upper, Middle and Lower Republican NRDs -- expect to close on the property in November.
"The project shows the tradition of local Nebraskan's working together. The local NRD Board members that voted for this project demonstrates the ability of local Nebraskans getting together, analyzing the challenges at hand and developing a long-term solution to the problem," said Dean Edson, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts.
The proposed project has benefits beyond compliance with interstate water agreements in the most cost-effective way and protecting the regional tax base.
One such benefit is refilling municipal well fields in the Basin by providing additional recharge to alluvial wells.
Stream flow enhancement will do more to increase stream flow during dry times than regulations, and dry times are when it is most important that well fields receive stream seepage. This project, in conjunction with the Rock Creek Steam Flow Enhancement Project in the Upper Republican NRD, will provide recharge to communities in the Republican Basin, and the Platte Basin from North Platte east.
"Three irrigation districts in the Platte Basin have entered agreements in Dawson County with the Central Platte NRD which is downstream from the new augmentation site. The agreements between the Central Platte NRD and these irrigations districts provides another opportunity to put the additional water to beneficial recharge when certain conditions exist, thus providing more benefits downstream in the Platte Basin," said Ron Bishop, general manager of the Central Platte NRD.
The project will also aid the surface-water irrigation system in the Republican Basin. The project could allow more surface water deliveries during dry years and limit regulations on surface water. And running water through the canals during dry times will help water supplies by providing additional recharge.
It is uncertain when exactly the proposed project will be operational, but the NRDs hope to have it in place during the second half of 2013.