There is a lot at stake in Nebraska’s struggle with Kansas over Republican River water: hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, not to mention the livelihoods of people who farm more than 1,000,000 acres in Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado. Nebraska is spending close to $150 million on projects designed to send enough water downstream to Kansas to fulfill an interstate agreement. But Kansas, and some Nebraska farmers, don’t like what’s happening.
On a steamy July afternoon in a farm field about 15 miles south of North Platte, beneath the silver arms of a center pivot, a crop of potatoes is getting a cool shower.
Scenes like this have been a familiar around here since the early 1980s. That’s when the Prudential Life Insurance Company bought thousands of acres of grassland, installed center pivots, and plowed up the sandy soil to grow crops.
Where is all this happening?
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Mike Keller has worked on what became known as Lincoln Farm since that time He’s helped the farm, with its 114 center pivots, grow lots of corn, soybeans, and potatoes. But Keller says they’re raising a different crop this year.
“It’s just cattle grazer, is what it’s called,” he explains, adding that it won’t be harvested. “Ourplan is to let it get like knee- to hip-high and then naturally die off. And just go down, fall down as a cover,” he says.
Later this year, the land will be replanted to grass. In three to five years, cattle could be grazing here again, like they did before Prudential developed the land for farming 30 years ago.
But what will be done with the water that’s no longer being used to grow crops?
For a clue, travel 85 miles southwest and up a rugged road to a spot on Rock Creek, in southwest Nebraska’s Dundy County. Here, a year ago, was a dry creek bed. Now, there 13,000 gallons of water a minute headed down Rock Creek toward the Republican River.
In 2010 Nebraska’s Upper Republican Natural Resources District bought about 3,200 irrigated acres here and stopped using the water to grow crops. This February, the district started pumping water into the dry creek bed instead.
Nate Jenkins, who works for the Upper Republican NRD, leads a visitor through the tall grass and weeds near Rock Creek, and explains what the scene.“There’s valves like this obviously up and down the pipeline to control the flow. These valves are obviously wide open right now so we can get as much water through the end of the pipeline for Kansas,” Jenkins says.
In one year, the Rock Creek augmentation project can send enough water downstream to cover 15,000 thousand acres a foot deep. The Lincoln County project will have four times that capacity: 60,000 acre-feet.
Four NRDs bought the land there and are retiring more than 16,000 irrigated acres. They are planning to build a pipeline and start pumping water into Medicine Creek, a tributary of the Republican, next year.
The project will cost about $130 million. So far, farmers who use irrigation water are paying that cost through occupation taxes – but in the future, all Nebraska taxpayers may be asked to help pay.
Last week, Nebraska asked Colorado and Kansas to approve the project, officially known as N-CORPE for the “Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement Project.” In the meeting, held by conference call, Kansas Commissioner David Barfield said Kansas already objects to the smaller Rock Creek project, and those concerns apply to N-CORPE as well.“The scope of the N-CORPE project heightens Kansas’ concerns expressed,” Barfield said, adding “No state should be surprised that Kansas cannot agree to the N-CORPE proposal in its current form.”
Kansas’ vote won’t stop N-CORPE. But it does mean Nebraska will get credit for only a little over half the water it pumps toward the river, a decision already being appealed.
Barfield calls projects like Rock Creek and N-CORPE “tools of last resort,” because Nebraska has used too much water. And he says Nebraska needs to show pumping water like this now won’t deplete future supplies.
That also worries Dale Cramer, who farms a few miles south of the Republican River near Cambridge. Cramer says pumping too much water from the ground leaves too little for the canals that help irrigate farms like his.
Cramer drives a visitor over one dry canal, and points to a nearby field. “This is a field that normally would have surface water, and since there’s no surface water, it’s drying up,” he says. To theuntrained eye, the corn in the field looks green and lush. But Cramer says you can see it’s stressed by looking at the leaves.“It’s so rolled up that I think it’s already a loss. I don’t think it could rain enough to bring it back,” he declares.
Cramer is part of a lawsuit against N-CORPE by farmers who use surface water for irrigation. He says pumping water out of the ground to send to Kansas will make shortages worse in the long run.
“They’re going to pump it, taking from the future inflows that we would have got out of there,” he says. “What do you do 20 years from now? They pump that water that we should have got, we won’t be getting anything, is the way I see it. I guess I don’t see it as a long-term solution.”
Back up in Lincoln County, driving past now-idle center pivots, Dan Smith of the Middle Republican NRD rejects the argument that Nebraska is borrowing from the future to pay Kansas now.“That could be true if there were never acres developed here. But what we’re using is the water that would have been pumped on acres as it was in the past,” Smith says.
Even after Kansas voted “no” in last week’s conference call, Brian Dunnigan, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, tried to end on a positive note about N-CORPE.“I would just like the record to reflect how important we think these projects are, not only for Nebraska but for Kansas water users also,” Dunnigan said. “We feel that they’re very important as far as our commitment to compliance with the (Republican River) Compact, and to make water available for Kansas’ use.”
In Lincoln County, Mike Keller, now N-CORPE site manager, says he doesn’t know if he really has an opinion about turning the farm back to grassland and pumping the water away.
However, Keller adds,“It’s something that has to happen. We gotta get a handle on this water situation. Or in the generations to come, it’s going to be ugly.”
Whether projects like N-CORPE are the best way to prevent that may, like so much else involving the Republican River, ultimately wind up in court.
Check out a slideshow of photos from reporter Fred Knapp chronicling N-CORPE's efforts . For captions, click the icon at lower right to enter full screen mode: