07/16 - Water and Natural Resources Tour explores Republican River Basin

By Jasmine Mausbach, Water for Food Institute intern

This summer’s Water and Natural Resources Tour included nearly 70 participants, from college students to retired farmers, and most with a firm background in water quality and quantity issues – except for me. As a 19-year-old undergrad student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), I set out with a vague awareness of the water issues facing Nebraska and neighboring state irrigators, but nothing to the extent that was presented on tour.

The focus of this particular tour, organized by the Nebraska Water Center, was the Republican River Basin. We travelled across Nebraska from Holdrege into the northeastern farmland of Colorado. I was given the opportunity to see the effects of groundwater depletion first-hand and hear about tensions between surface and groundwater irrigators. I was also surrounded by a multitude of people who were well versed in groundwater, surface water, land subsidence, center pivot irrigation, resource management and more.

From the experience, I learned the Republican River runs through three states: Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas. There is a nearly 75-year-old legal compact between these three states that mandates each of them to maintain a certain amount of streamflow in the Republican River across borders and to adhere to groundwater and surface water models. Each state must comply with these stipulations each year, which can be tough to do when the demands for irrigation water for crops is high and the amount of water in the river is low, as happens during drought years. This is just one of the issues the states deal with in this delicate balance, especially in eastern Colorado and western Nebraska where the climate is more arid.

I saw how some of these compact issues plague Colorado communities, specifically in the Bonny Reservoir area near Idalia. The compact requires Colorado to deliver a specified amount of streamflow, and due to evaporation and leakage from the reservoir, the state wasn’t meeting its obligation. Additionally, the state was being charged for the evaporation and leakage, so a decision was made to drain the reservoir completely to reduce costs. Bonny Reservoir once flourished as a site for recreation, irrigation and flood control. Today, its gates stand open and the reservoir is largely gone, having become little more than waterfowl-inhabited wetlands most of the year.

Nebraska also has some longstanding issues balancing compact compliance and water use for irrigation. However, thanks to the recent N-CORPE Project, Nebraska now has a system to meet compliance each year. To meet streamflow requirements downstream in Kansas, the project pumps groundwater into Medicine Creek, a tributary of the Republican River Basin. Some argue that the N-CORPE project solves a short-term problem while worsening the long-term problem of groundwater depletion.

Luckily, there have been great technological advances and programs developed in the last decade that increase the efficiency of water use not only in Nebraska, but also across the globe. UNL’s Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis is an example of a program that teaches students farming techniques that use the least amount of resources for the highest yield. In McCook, Nebraska, we toured Valmont Industries, Inc., the largest center pivot producer in the world, seeing how they maximize water use through highly efficient center pivot irrigation systems. Near Republican City we learned how invasive species eradication projects also have benefitted water levels across the state by removing non-native plants that consume large quantities of water resources.

After many eye-opening and fact-filled stops along the way, a boat excursion on The U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Harlan County Reservoir was a great way to end the tour. Sitting back and enjoying some fresh air while cruising past the reservoir’s ongoing dam repairs was a nice break from travelling in a charter bus. And at the end of the day, cruising on that pontoon, I realized surface water and groundwater issues are one and the same and that there is no silver bullet when it comes to finding a solution. However, states, irrigation districts, natural resources districts, farmers, irrigators, and even homeowners can make a difference if we work collectively toward water sustainability for the future. It will require a lot of discussion, policymaking and the will to manage our natural resources for future generations. I look forward to being part of that discussion, helping Nebraska and our world to sustainably use our limited and precious water resources.