Are you kidding me? Use taxpayer's tax money to buy developed farm ground, undeveloped it, then continue to pump irrigation water from under it to dump into the Republican and North Platte Rivers. All that just to send water to Kansas. Pumping costs money but there is always more available, just raise the "occupation tax" that irrigated farmers are forced to pay. What could go wrong with that kind of a deal?
What in the world is this all about? Well it isn't rocket science.
When it rains, the water soaks into the ground. When enough soaks in, underlying sand and gravel (what we call the aquifer) becomes saturated. Eventually the top of the water table nears the surface and begins to flow to a stream. It works both ways; water from the stream soaks into the ground and raises the water table. Now the NRD is proposing to mechanically pump underground water and dump it into the stream which has ceased to flow because of pumping further upstream.
It makes about as much sense as standing in a bucket and trying to pick yourself and the bucket up with the handle. How did we get here in the first place?
Following the 1935 flood in the Republican River Valley, McCook Daily Gazette Publisher Harry Strunk and probably several other community leaders with good sense conceived the idea of building large flood control dams on the Republican River and its tributaries. Harry excelled in the art of political arm twisting so in the spirit of President Roosevelt's New Deal federal money was made available to build those dams for flood control and irrigation development. So far so good. The Feds directed the states Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, the only place the Republican River runs, to make a compact to divide up the available water.
Irrigation was very much a part of the deal and canal systems were built concurrent with the dam building construction. The cost of the irrigation systems were to be paid back by the irrigators that benefited as were the costs of operation and maintenance on the dams.
Since the early 1930s enterprising farmers began to drill wells into the shallow Republican aquifer to irrigate crops in fields where surface water irrigation was not available. Then circa the 1960s center pivots were developed and ground water use increased exponentially.
Then Kansas noticed that they were receiving a whole lot less stream flow where the Republican River crosses the state line below the Harlan County Reservoir east of Alma. Kansas sued and accused Nebraska of using way more water than they had a right to citing the Tri-State Compact that had been agreed to receive the federal money. Kansas understood that pumping and using ground water was what was diminishing stream flows and the judges in the case thought it only fair Nebraska pay damages. We lost!
Enter the Nebraska Legislature most of whom had no concept of underground or surface water, irrigation or anything about trying to make a living farming for that matter. The legislators did understand that their constituents, especially in Lincoln and Omaha would be reluctant to pony up tax money to pay the fines levied on the State of Nebraska by the Kansas friendly court. So they juggled the hot potato for a bit, declared that ground water (what we pump) probably had no relationship with diminished surface stream flows and passed the buck to the several NRDs (Natural Resource Districts). The NRDs were to resolve the matter and get the promised water flowing into Kansas.
They were also given the power to tax farmers who irrigate because obviously tax money can solve everything. To confuse things further, the Legislature kept control of surface water under the purview of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Actually there was a better solution and that was a body of existing law covering prospective irrigators who filed for water rights in the historical order in which filed. They called it "First in right, first in time." Had the current law givers understood the relation of ground water to surface water, use too much of one then the other diminishes, the use of water could have been allocated under existing law. Nebraska could have also told Kansas to pound sand, that the water that falls on our territory is ours to use and they would just have to put up with diminished flows. Good sense but alas it was not to be.
So it is that now our local NRDs are going to use tax money to buy 19,500 acres of what was locally known as Oppligers huge ranch. The NRDs being a governmental entity are excused from paying taxes. The burden of local education, roads and the other entities that are financed with property taxes will of course have to be picked up by raising the taxes of the neighbors but not to worry, it will only be just a small amount for each. The corn, soybeans and potatoes formerly produced from Oppligers went to local markets so there will be a hole in the production handled by local elevators and markets. Machinery sales, fuel and oil, fertilizer, seed, crop production chemicals, 19,500 acres worth all wiped out. Jobs gone, employees seeking other work -- not to worry.
The plan is to continue to pump water from the aquifer below the surface that is currently center pivot irrigated and put that "new water" back into the two rivers. One minor detail is that the aquifer there feeds the South Platte River System so pumping from it and diverting that water into the Republican River will probably be a non-starter. Some thirty years ago the same concept was attempted further west out by Brule. It was proposed to pump excess winter time flows of the South Platte River over the divide into the Frenchman River to recharge the Republican River aquifer.
That didn't go well as lawyers representing people in eastern Nebraska were more interested in watching that excess river water flow past them and into the Missouri River. Producing valuable crops in western Nebraska and providing water to Kansas was a non-starter. This year the Platte River summertime flows were critically low past the pumping stations where Grand Island, Lincoln and Omaha get their municipal water. I predict that stealing from the Platte aquifer to replenish the Republican River is going to be a really hard sell.
This part of the country where we live was once a part of the Louisiana Purchase. The United States Government bought and paid for it and thus held title to it all. Government land, no farms, a few ranches, no industry, very few people, just acres and acres of potential. Then came the Homestead Act and ordinary people were able to gain title to "free land." Land meant wealth. Under private ownership the place dramatically became an economic powerhouse.
Toward the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln came to see the potential for tying this great nation together by building rail lines across the "Great American Desert." To finance rail building the US Government deeded great swaths of raw land on each side of the proposed rail lines to the railroad investors. In turn the railroad companies sold that land to private individuals. The state of Nebraska saw an opportunity to get in on the bonanza of free land and edicted that two sections of every township be deeded to the state school system. The Department of School lands was to manage those school sections, lease them to neighboring farms and industry with the rents going to "Land Grant Colleges" and other necessary education financing.
Typically in the way government inefficiently runs most things, the school lands were poorly managed. The rent monies were welcome but always short of bureaucratic needs. Then the state legislature decided that selling all the school land was the thing to do so most of those school sections are now history. Gee I wonder what happened to all that largess of selling assets promised for education of our children and grandchildren? All gone!
That is where we are today and the huge land purchase is the NRD solution. At least board members Steve Cappel and James Uerling had the good sense to vote NO but the majority said yes. For sure it will be expensive and has little hope of solving the problem. But then after all it is only tax money--free for the taking. Best of all the Legislature won't have to take any of the blame for past dumb decision making.
That is how I saw it.