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Last updated 8:11PM ET
October 19, 2021
Nebraska News
Nebraska News
Proposed Platte irrigation changes draw fire; alternatives could be worse
(NET Radio) - A new proposal would change how some farmers irrigate their crops in central Nebraska's Platte River valley. Critics say it risks tampering with a system that's worked well for decades. But supporters say doing nothing could require even more drastic change.

In a field south of Gothenburg, in central Nebraska, the crops line up like one of those school pictures, with the shortest kids in front and the tallest ones in back. In the foreground, soybeans hug the ground. Behind them sit a few rows of thirsty corn, and in the background, healthy-looking corn twice as high. In the distance, water sprays from the pipes of a center pivot irrigation system, creeping across the land like an erector set on wheels.


Fred Knapp, NET News

Roger Wahlgren stands amid unirrigated corn, with irrigated corn in background.

Fred Knapp, NET News

This bubbler is used to filter impurities from surface water before it's used in a center pivot. Groundwater has fewer impurities and is less likely to clog pivots.

Fred Knapp, NET News

A crowd listens to discussion of a new irrigation proposal at a meeting of the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District in Holdrege.

Top: UNL Conservation and Survey Division; bottom: CNPPID

Groundwater levels in areas served by CNPPID canals have increased since widespread irrigation began in the 1940s

Standing in the short corn, farmer Roger Wahlgren explained the difference between the background and the foreground. "Everything under the pivot is irrigated, and these acres are continuous dryland acres. I can't ever go back and irrigate them. Even if I sell the ground, the next owner can't go back and irrigate these acres," Wahlgren said.

Those unirrigated acres are the corner of a field where the center pivot won't reach, anyway - the corners of a rectangle left over after a circle has been drawn in the middle. Until a couple of years ago, Walhgren irrigated the whole field from a ditch that brought water from the nearby Platte River, and used pipes to bring it to the edge of the field, where gravity carried it down the rows.

Even though he's sacrificed a few irrigated acres, Wahlgren says pumping water from a well through a center pivot, which sprays it over the field, is a big improvement. "I probably average under gravity irrigation probably anywhere from 25 to 30 acre inches of water, and under a pivot system, I'm down to 12 to 15 in a normal year," he said. (An "acre inch" is the amount needed to cover an acre with an inch of water). "So we're saving half the water in a normal year as opposed to gravity irrigation and an obsolete system of distribution with the ditch system."

Now, the Central Platte Natural Resources District - the agency that manages groundwater in the area where Wahlgren farms - wants to expand those water savings on a much larger scale. Along with the neighboring Twin Platte NRD, the district is proposing that farms covering 100,000 acres in Gosper, Phelps and Kearney counties switch from Platte River water to groundwater for irrigation.

Under an agreement signed in 2006 to protect endangered species, Nebraska has to come up with up to 150,000 acre feet of additional water in the Platte River every year starting in 2019. The state's a little more than halfway toward meeting that goal, and Central Platte NRD manager Ron Bishop told surface water irrigators recently that the new proposal would be a big help. "This proposal would go a long ways, if you chose to implement it, in achieving large amounts of the additional flows that are wanted and needed," Bishop said.

The proposal would require a big change by an important and well-established group: the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District. The district takes water from the Platte at Lake McConnaughy and delivers it to farmers through a series of canals. The proposal would still use those canals, but not for irrigation - only to let the water soak into the ground and recharge the estimated 450 new irrigation wells that would have to be drilled.

Tom Schwarz uses both surface water from the Platte and groundwater from wells on his farm near Smithfield, south of Lexington. Schwarz said he'd like to see a pilot project, testing whether the proposal would really work the way computer models say it would. He said the key is maintaining a balance so that new wells don't produce a never-ending decline in groundwater in the area. "Just like our bank accounts we've got to live within our means. And water should be treated same way. We live within our means. And one other thing is we don't go steal other people's money, do we? And we shouldn't go steal other people's water," he said.

Supporters of the proposal like Bishop say the goal is to leave more water in the Platte, and they don't even want to take away the increase in underground water that's been built up by seepage from the canals since irrigation began.

Still, the proposal generated some harsh criticism from surface water irrigators. Summing up his criticisms at the irrigation district meeting in Holdrege where Bishop presented the idea last week, farmer Rook Thorell clearly touched a nerve with the crowd. "I think we are prepared to stop this thing, if it takes every man, woman and child from here to the Kansas border. And I'm not so sure Kansas wouldn't be with us on this one," Thorell said, leading the crowd to applaud. But as popular as stopping change might be among farmers who use Platte River water for irrigation, it might not be an option. If this proposal is not accepted, Bishop said, the alternative could be worse. "Nebraska's still got to come up with the water," Bishop said. "So if this doesn't happen, then we have to look at other sources." He added that it would take drying up more than 250,000 acres of groundwater irrigated lands to come up with a similar amount of water saving.

That raises some big questions, including where those dried-up acres would be located and what the economic effects would be.

For now, said Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation General Manager Don Krause, the focus will be on details of the proposal. "The modeling data is important. Those are important details. We'll take a look at it," Krause said. He noted "a lot of good comments from water users, concerned about moving surface water away, but willing to look at pilot projects," before reiterating that CNPPID's staff and board will study the proposal.

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