Letter to the Editor

Nebraska's solution to water shortage is to make the problem even worse

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

This is a tale of practically unimaginable waste and bad sense.

No, we're not talking about federal government spending. For this also is a tale of extreme environmental -- and long-term economic -- folly.

The tale starts with irrigation farming on the High Plains, where the vast and rich underground water resource called the Ogallala Aquifer was for farmers like a seemingly endless gold strike for a prospector. A 1943 compact between three states governed sharing of the Republican River, which flows from Colorado through southwest Nebraska and into Kansas, eventually into the Kansas River.That compact was the basis for Kansas suing the two other states in 1998, claiming over-pumping had reduced the Republican to a trickle by the time it got to Kansas. A 2002 settlement in the suit forced Nebraska to take responsibility.

And so we arrive to today -- and Nebraska's solution to the problem. Common sense would suggest that would be curtailing the pumping for irrigation. But, no, Nebraska decided that would be too economically damaging to its state. So, instead, the state drilled more water wells and started pumping the clear, clean water from the Ogallala and dumping it into Republican River tributaries to increase stream flow.

And the state has spent $135 million to do it in four Natural Resources Districts -- a misnomer if we've ever heard one -- and send water into Kansas, The Salina Journal reports.

It was one matter to irrigate crops such as corn that wouldn't otherwise grow on the High Plains when this vast underground ocean seemed practically limitless. But then we realized we were draining it rapidly. A third of it is gone, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback told The Journal, saying Nebraska's pumping to put water in the river was news to him.

"That's not the kind of answer we're looking for. We'd like a natural and sustainable long-term answer in the river system," he said.

Mother Nature could recharge the Ogallala if allowed, but not only is Nebraska declining to reduce use, it's pumping more to the surface. And water experts estimate that a third to one half of the water is lost to the ground and evaporation before it even enters Kansas. Some of the new wells are more than 200 miles upstream from where the Republican enters Kansas.

All told, Nebraska will pump more than 26 billion gallons of water a year into the Republican -- that's about the contents of a good-sized Kansas lake -- and spend probably more than $1 million a year in electricity to do it.

What's the alternative? Simple: Stop irrigating crops that God never meant to be grown on the High Plains. But Nebraska officials feared that would be too big of a blow to the region's economy.

Sounds a little like the argument that we should not worry about climate change because curbing greenhouse gas emissions would be hard on the U.S. economy.

Western Nebraska isn't going to have an economy when the Ogallala runs dry.

Kansas has its issues with over appropriation of water rights for irrigation. And Kansas has struggled with the concept that what government once gave away -- when supply seemed plentiful -- now government may have to take away. But Nebraska's waste of vital groundwater resources is on a whole other plane.

The states need to get together again and figure out a new vision to save water resources -- not squander the last remaining drops. This compact clearly isn't working.

-- Montgomery is on the editorial board of the Hutchinson (Kans.) News.

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  • Much truth to this editorial. Surface and groundwater irrigators need a joint plan. All NRD's should get nearly the same water. Pumping water from Lincoln County may help meet the compact but it only makes the problem worse as it is taking water from the same aquifer. The same plans and type leadership will only give us the same results. Change is needed. Will our children's children have any water?

    -- Posted by dennis on Tue, Feb 25, 2014, at 3:56 PM
  • Same song, second verse.

    -- Posted by oelmer1938 on Wed, Feb 26, 2014, at 6:56 AM
  • Wish you were our state senator again Owen. After 16 years it is time the water leadership shifts back to the Middle or Lower NRDs.

    -- Posted by dennis on Wed, Feb 26, 2014, at 7:38 AM
  • Our willingness to steal from our children and our children's children to sustain our current lifestyle or standard of living is amoral. Plain and simple.

    -- Posted by Adam Wolford on Wed, Feb 26, 2014, at 8:29 AM
  • Some of the points that have been stated above are valid while others are skewed to the favor of certain viewpoints. The simple solution (if there is one) is that the entire compact needs to be rewritten and placed under an authority over the entire (35,000 sq. mi. total) Republican River basin. (7,700 sq. mi. in Colorado, 15400 in the upper and lower in Kansas, and 11900 in Nebraska) I will attempt to explain my opinions as succinctly as possible.

    1. The Compact was written at a time when there was very little erosion control on farmland. In this I am referring to terracing, pasture dams, pasture pits, and bench farming. Most of these physical control devices were paid for with cost share dollars with the federal government.

    2. In addition to the physical control devices, we are now using minimum or no tillage farming to keep the natural rainfall on the soil longer to allow more time for penetration of same. (To illustrate this point. I have a 'dry' creek in one of my pastures. As a child I remember many times that 'dry' creek would run 40 to 50 feet across after a heavy rain. Since the advent of conservation tillage I cannot remember 1 time in the last 20 years it has ever run more than 8 feet in width)

    3. In responding to the accusation that we Ag businesses have had free rein to drill, develop, and pump without restriction is laughable at best and at worst slanderous and troublemaking. Producers have not been able to drill new wells for quite some time. In addition to this, all wells are monitored with flow meters and must adhere to strict limits.

    4. The wells in Lincoln County were producing wells in the first place irrigating thousands of acres of Lincoln county ground. There were no new wells drilled for that project. But, there were thousands of acres of land taken out of irrigated practice and losing irrigated tax base.

    5. As to the fact that the Ogallala will replenish itself given enough time. Yes but that is without any water use in Kansas, Colorado, and any other unregulated wells on the aquifer. This includes households, municipalities, stock wells, industrial uses and the like. I have read that geologists are not sure what the source of the aquifer is, but theorize that the Nebraska sand hills may be the key.

    6. We must also realize that we only know a very brief history of the long term precipitation patterns in our area. We have only lived here for a mere 150 years. We have no idea if we settled here during an abnormally wet time, abnormally dry one or an average representation of long term rainfall patterns.

    7. You must also remember that the NRD's have taken the highroad as they could have just bought wells just above the "checkpoints" in the compact and pumped the water past the checkpoints to ensure meeting the compacts letter of the law, without meeting the intention of the compact.

    8. If stream flows are based upon the usage from the Ogallala aquifer, we need to remember that the aquifer is huge. The Ogallala Aquifer underlies an area of approximately 174,000 sq. mi. in portions of eight states: (South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. So obviously it's not just the usage of a portion of one river basin in one state.

    Yes there needs to controls and we are trying our best to meet the tenets of the compact. But the compact is based on stream flows and not on precipitation, with no accommodation made for conservation structures, or tillage practices. We do need an overall NON biased authority. It needs to fair across all users of the aquifer, inside AND outside the Basin. Relying on one area of one state to bear the burden of over use of water from the source is akin to slavery.

    -- Posted by quick13 on Wed, Feb 26, 2014, at 10:45 AM
  • This editorial infuriates me to no end. First of all the old compact is junk. No one involved in it even understood the hydraulic dynamics of the ground water and surface water relationship.

    No till farming and conservation programs have all but dried up the creeks and inputs into the river. quick13 pointed out most of the correct facts.

    One thing I'd like to point out that quicl13 did not, and this is what really boils my blood. The fact that Kansas is also pumping the SAME water to irrigate the SAME crops that the author scolds Nebraskans for using where God didn't intend to raise crops!

    Does anyone else not see this? Do you think Kansas is not irrigated crops!? These whiners make it sound like Nebraska has used up all the water and ONLY Nebraska is able to pump ground water these days!

    Look at your Google Earth and scroll down about 30 miles and look at all the center pivots across the landscape. They pumping just as much water as Nebraska. Why do we have to pay them for the right of pumping water and they don't?

    This whole thing the last 12 years has just been a complete joke. You know, why aren't we suing Colorado? The Republican starts out there and there is never any water flowing across the state line!

    -- Posted by Justin76 on Wed, Feb 26, 2014, at 12:37 PM
  • Where we were and what changes were made is not as important as were we are now....which according to the latest U.S. Geog. survey is just 35 years away from the aquifer under the Republican Basin being dry. If all pumping stopped today it would take hundred years to get the aquifer back to where it was in1950. Stopping all pumping is really not an option but smart, equitable use is. To stop the depletion and just maintain the current level, major changes are needed to reduce the depletion. A fair plan between the surface and groundwater users and the three NRD's allotments must be found. Following the leadership pushed by the past is not the way.

    -- Posted by dennis on Sun, Mar 2, 2014, at 11:02 AM
  • Dennis, while I respect your opinions you need to do a little more research on your facts. Please note the following websites the saturated thickness is shown on both of the following



    While the depletions are shown on these websites:



    Please read MIT report on the Ogallala aquifer as follows.


    Using 100 feet of saturated aquifer thickness it would take approximately 545.5 years to pump the aquifer dry. But conversely it would also take 177 years to restore to pre-1940 levels without any pumping of any kind.

    In my opinion what needs to happen is that the Compact needs to be rewritten. As I stated in my previous post, stream flow is no longer a good benchmark for compliance. What needs to occur is as follows.

    1. The entire Basin needs to be put under one NON biased authority. (We are all tired of the fighting between NRD's and States)

    2. The surface and ground water usage needs identical rules in all three states. (Kansas and Colorado rules are different from Nebraska's and each NRD have their own take on those rules)

    3. Rules regulating usage needs to be based on rainfall, groundwater declines (or increases), and a last 7 year usage total. (Rainfall would indicate the short term need and groundwater levels would indicate long term usages. while the 7 year running average would give the farmer the ability to decide for himself how much he needs to pump or what crops to plant in the current crop year.)

    4. Make the penalties severe if farmer compliance is not met.

    5. Give incentives to the farmer for pumping less that his/her allocation.

    I believe that this would be fairer and more just

    Also remember,this problem was not made overnight and cannot be solved overnight.

    -- Posted by quick13 on Mon, Mar 3, 2014, at 9:51 AM
  • quickie, you hit the nail on the head with many of your ideas. On the data, one "side" can point to "research" and the other will use other data. What we can agree upon is the current use is not working or is at least not fair/equal between the different NRD's and surface/ground.

    -- Posted by dennis on Mon, Mar 3, 2014, at 2:25 PM
  • I know what would be fair... Kansas can decide what Nebraska gets to use and Nebraska can decide what Kansas gets to use. I Bet no one would like that idea which means it is the most fair.

    -- Posted by shallal on Tue, Mar 4, 2014, at 7:59 PM
  • Looking at what has been taking place over the years since the 70's, the dryland acres have been turned into irrigated acres. More wells have been drilled and the water usage increased immensely. The Federal government used the farm program to make things easier for farmers to do their job. On the other hand, they caused a problem that leaves us to deal with. It could be handled by stopping all irrigation on the dryland acres like it used to be in the past. This country never had the problem of water usage then. Only river bottom ground was irrigated.

    I know that is a statement that will make many people mad and disgusted, but it is true. I've kept track of the years gone by. Since the 60's, changes have been made for the good. In the last 10 years it had gone down the wrong road. Conservation is what is needed, not over usage. Robbing Peter to pay Paul will not get the problem solved. Pumping water from Lincoln county to here should only be for the consumers who need water for their houses, yards, and other human and domesticated uses. Not to irrigate with.

    The problem is the weather. Right now the weather is worst than in the "Dirty Thirties". We are lucky to have all the conservation practices in place to keep the ground from blowing away.

    The people who made the Nebraska / Kansas water deal must have been eating bad food. That is a joke as far as nature is concerned. Fighting over water. What is next??

    -- Posted by edbru on Sat, Mar 8, 2014, at 5:50 PM
  • Edbru, you made a lot of sense and you are right that your statement will make some mad and disgusted. Truth hurts. That said we must find a better way to be fair to all three NRDs and ground/surface users. We do need water for ag

    -- Posted by dennis on Sun, Mar 9, 2014, at 6:54 PM
  • Everyone has good ideas and thoughts, but here's the bottom line. If it were not for irrigation, this town, the surrounding community would be hit hard like we have never seen.

    Turing back all those dryland fields to dryland again will reduce 100's of millions of dollars in Ag sales and service, reduce farm incomes by the same, and the that money is what drives all the stores, restaurants, etc. It generates property taxes that pay for the schools and keeps this community going.

    I shudder at the thought of that happening to us. Can you imagine people losing their jobs by the hundreds, losing the equity in their homes and having to move east with no money in their pockets? That's the reality of shutting off the water. That's the reality of us pumping water out of the ground and into a river so it can run into Kansas 200 miles away.

    We need to conserve and God knows I'm trying with my customers, but we need the water for our lives or we may just as well start Googling for jobs and homes in some other state.

    -- Posted by Justin76 on Wed, Mar 12, 2014, at 11:50 AM
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