Water planning for the future

GERING, Neb. – Water.

It’s used for everything from irrigating crops to cooling off in a lake or pond on a hot summer day. It’s necessary to live and, for many, it’s one of the key ingredients in that most essential elixir – coffee.

It’s also the economic key for ag producers in the Panhandle and eastern Wyoming. And, depending on the source, managing that finite resource is the job of local Natural Resources Districts and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources.

The tools for that job are management plans. Whether an Integrated Management Plan between the NeDNR and an individual NRD or a broader, Basin Wide Plan, they govern water conservation, use and development for the future.

Jennifer Schellpeper, manager of the NeDNR Water Planning Division, and water planner Beth Eckles were in Gering last week to address members of the Soil and Water Conservation Society during that group’s annual meeting at the Legacy of the Plains Museum. NeDNR is evaluating existing management plans as part of an on-going process.

The initial management plan was developed in 2009, Schellpeper said. Part of the process mandates looking at the plans, seeing what’s been learned over the previous 10-year increment and determining what needs to be done moving forward.

“Every 10 years, we re-evaluate where we are,” Schellpeper said. “How do we apply what we learned in the first increment to the second increment going forward.”

The plans and the evaluation process are mandated by Nebraska state law, she said. Part of that mandate is how local and basin-wide plans integrate with interstate management systems, such as the Platte River Recovery Plan. IMPs compliment that plan and others governing water sharing and usage between the states, Schellpeper said.

Water sources are defined by where they’re found, surface water versus groundwater, Eckles told the group. And that determines how water rights are administered, she said.

Groundwater is held in underground aquifers, while surface water is in streams, rivers and reservoirs across the state and region. Surface water supplies are “as reliable as the weather,” Eckles said, while groundwater supplies are constantly recharged as surface water seeps through the ground and into the aquifers.

Usage rights are different, depending on where the water is found, she said. Surface water management is the job of the NeDNR and follows what’s known as the Prior Appropriation Doctrine. Individuals or groups which secured rights to surface water usage early have priority, Eckles said. In times of shortage, those with rights secured later may find their supply reduced or cut in favor of those with older rights claims.

Groundwater is different. Managed by the 23 NRDs in Nebraska, access is managed by what’s known as the Rule of Reasonable Use. In times of shortage, all users of a groundwater source can be limited to how much water they can use.

“The biggest difference that makes management of supplies difficult is because of rights,” Eckles said. “It’s hard to balance the use and come up with a policy to do both of those together.

“They affect one another,” she said. “That’s why we do integrated management plans.”

A big part of the IMPs involves balancing economic viability with sustainability to maintain the groundwater aquifers for current usage while still allowing for new uses in the future. It’s a difficult balancing act.

“We don’t want to say, ‘everybody shut your wells off. We’re going to fix it that way,’” Eckles said. “The economics of the area would just go down the tubes.”

Both groundwater and surface water sources are important, she said. IMPs and BWPs are vital tools to maintain both because management practices implemented on one source can impact the other, either positively or negatively, Eckles said.

And the BWP for the Upper Platte River Basin is currently under review. NeDNR is working with stakeholders in the NRDs to determine what’s going to happen in the future.

Some of the conservation plans being considered include groundwater retirement and projects to divert some of the surface water, particularly in times of high flows, into canals or storage basins where it can slowly seep down and replenish underground aquifers. 

Planning isn’t done in a vacuum, she said. It’s vital to involve the people or groups which use the water in the process.

“Stakeholders drive a lot of the planning process,” Eckles said. “Their concerns are what we use as a roadmap to develop the goals and objectives for the IMPs.”

Planning Division manager Schellpeper agreed. Water planning is a long, involved process. But it seems to be working, as long as people keep the discussions going. When the groups stop talking, that’s when disagreements arise.

“Everything we’ve learned, what seems to be successful is the ongoing conversation, engaging all the stakeholder groups,” she said. “As soon as that falls off, people don’t feel heard, people don’t feel involved in the process.

“We seem to be able to keep making progress forward,” Schellpeper said. “We’re not solving all the world’s problems, but it’s moving in the right direction.”

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