HOLDREGE - A proposal to change the primary use of canals in Nebraska's largest irrigation district received a polite, but icy reception Friday from a standing-room-only audience in Holdrege.
The idea from the Central Platte and Twin Platte natural resources district is to offer incentives to Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District and its irrigators to convert most of their irrigated acres from surface water to groundwater. The canals then would be managed for groundwater recharge.
CNPPID's primary irrigation area is 105,000 acres in Gosper, Phelps and Kearney counties.
At Friday's CNPPID Committee of the Board meeting, Central Platte NRD General Manager Ron Bishop of Grand Island said, "The proposal would go a long way, if we chose to implement it." He was referring to Platte River Recovery Implementation Program goals that include returning the basin west of Elm Creek from overappropriated to fully appropriated status.
Bishop said meeting those goals only by retiring irrigation would require "something in excess of 250,000 acres of irrigated land returned back to dryland."
It was that number, he said, that created the two NRDs' interest in funding a conjunctive management study by engineers from Brown and Caldwell of Denver.
The plan was described in a May 9 press release from the NRDs. Nearly all of the estimated 150 people at Friday's meeting, including CNPPID officials and irrigators, Nebraska Public Power District and Tri-Basin Natural Resources District officials, and six state senators, were hearing the details for the first time.
Bishop and Twin Platte General Manager Kent Miller of North Platte were criticized for proceeding in secrecy and not including CNPPID in the process.
State Sen. Tom Carlson was unhappy about "this secrecy thing and what went on behind closed doors without Central."
"I'm bitterly disappointed that the study didn't include us from the get go," Central Water Users President Dave Dahlgren of Holdrege told the Hub.
Bertrand farmer Tom Schwarz acknowledged that there are times for confidentiality, "But there's no reason this kind of thing can't be discussed in public."
Engineer Brent Cain said the pre-feasibility study of the proposal to re-purpose the CNPPID irrigation system found that it could provide river benefits plus enough groundwater recharge for the estimated 450 new irrigation wells needed by CNPPID irrigators switching fully to groundwater.
Some of the river benefits would result from Lake McConaughy management changes, the ability to store off-season high flows in canals and in possible new reservoirs, and reducing evaporation losses from water deliveries made in the middle of summer.
Cain said streamflow credits to the adjacent Republican River Basin could be maintained. Benefits to NPPD projects - irrigation and cooling water for the Gerald Gentleman power plant - and to CNPPID hydropower production also would be maintained.
CNPPID directors criticized the study's use of data from 1952-2002 as not being current enough to include recent drought years or to reflect enhanced use of water-use efficiencies such as greater use of no-till farming and pivot irrigation on the CNPPID system.
Cain also acknowledged that the study didn't look at potential effects on Jeffrey, Johnson and Elwood reservoirs if the irrigation system is changed.
Loomis farmer Rook Thorell said he believes "outsiders" want to mess up the system.
He also is concerned about adding 450 wells, in an area already under an irrigation well moratorium, after seeing some of his pumping capacity decline over the years.
"I guarantee it. There will be well after well after well, like mine, that won't pump anymore," Thorell said. "Nobody talked about paying for that."
Tri-Basin NRD General Manager John Thorburn said it's true that full-time wells would pump harder in areas where supplemental groundwater is used now. "This system we know now is pretty stable," he said, but it's unknown if changing it would create a new equilibrium or produce a different outcome.
Dahlgren said that when he saw the groundwater mound colored in blue in the engineers' presentation, it looked "like a target on our property rights."
"I just want people to think about what Holdrege would look like if Central's offices on the east side of town were empty," he said.
Farmer and former state Sen. Ed Schrock of Elm Creek, who as chairman of the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee worked on passage of conjunctive use-related legislation, said, "The thing that bothers me is they're gonna keep the same number of irrigated acres, add to the groundwater mound, contribute to the Republican Basin and add water to the river."
"It doesn't add up," he told the Hub. "Call me a skeptic."
Some speakers seemed willing to study alternatives short of the extremes considered in the Brown and Caldwell study.
Schwarz said he likes the idea of integrated water management and believes some opportunities described should be explored with a pilot project to "check the (computer) modeling against reality."
"I appreciate the idea of thinking outside the box," said state Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, while reminding his audience that the groundwater mound is vital to both the Platte and Republican basins.
Bishop said he hoped for a more positive response. He now hopes CNPPID officials will consider the options and said the two NRDs are willing to help pay for additional studies.
"There was a lot of, 'We don't even want to think about it or talk about it. We have the right to use the water and we don't want to change it,'" Bishop said about most of the comments Friday.
"I think we are prepared to stop this thing if it takes every man, woman and child from here to the Kansas border," Thorell said. "And I'm not so sure Kansas wouldn't be in on this."
Bishop expects more positive interest from other parts of Nebraska, including Kearney, Grand Island and other municipalities with well fields in the Platte River.
"This has implications for everybody in the Platte Valley downstream from Lake McConaughy," he said.