Saturday, 29 November 2014

Focusing on water plans

Does Nebraska need a comprehensive water plan?
There have been efforts over the years to write a plan and many studies done in support of that process. However, no state plan has been used to the extent that is common in other states.
Water planning was the focus this week at the annual Nebraska Water Resources Association-Nebraska State Irrigation Association joint conference in Kearney.
In a review of water management history reflected in studies, reports, projects and legislation, NSIA Executive Director Lee Orton and Robert Kuzelka, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources, said Nebraska’s “plan” primarily is reflected in legislation.
Orton said “intent language” at the front of bills leading to new laws describes important water issues over the years.
Kuzelka noted that there have been state water plan recommendations, but not a good definition despite more studies. “What is a state water plan?” he said. “...The final plan is what goes into the laws.”
Kuzelka and Orton said a 1936 Water Resources of Nebraska report was done by a state planning board.
Its valuable information includes a map showing the early network of groundwater observation wells, and statements about protecting groundwater and limiting its use to beneficial purposes.
Also listed was the need for upstream storage in the North Platte Basin for irrigation, power, domestic and recreational at a potential site that is about where Lake McConaughy sits. Orton said the proposed $10 million for a storage reservoir is the equivalent of $171 million in 2014 dollars.
“Those people had visionary ideas,” Kuzelka said, especially compared to the “relatively piddling” amounts for water projects considered by the Legislature more recently.
Also in the 1936 report were outlines of Republican Basin needs and Loup Basin projects that would become the Middle and North Loup Public Power and Irrigation districts.
Kuzelka said its writers said early on that their report was not a final plan, but a beginning.
Moving forward
A common thread in much of Nebraska’s water management history has need to be flexible in responding to change.
Kuzelka described the decision for Nebraska to join Kansas and Colorado in the 1943 Republican River Compact that allocates surface water in that basin as “rather innocuous at the time.” No one knew then how groundwater irrigation would affect streamflows or that disputes between the states would go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some good things short of a state water plan came from planning studies. One was a 1972 law that consolidated about 160 160 local conservation and resources districts into 24 natural resources districts, now 23.
“Believe it or not, an argument against the NRDs was a loss of local control,” Orton said.
In 1984, NRDs were required by the Legislature to write groundwater management plans. Groundwater quality protections were added in 1991.
A 2004 law required integrated water management plans addressing groundwater and surface water as one resource to be written by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources and NRDs for the Republican Basin and parts of the Platte Basin that are fully appropriated or overappropriated.
“Everything that has been done was intended to be a never-ending process,” Orton said.
Process, not plan
Meanwhile, plan proposals, water studies, reviews of other states’ water plans and a lack of adequate state funding for water management projects continued to be repeated, Orton said.
“There are things in the ‘36 study that could be brushed off, retyped and considered by the Legislature pretty quickly,” Kuzelka said. “... I think maybe we’ve studied some things enough.”
Since 1981, the Legislature has required an annual state water planning and review process report to replace a state water plan. That change had been recommended in 1978 by the Natural Resources Commission and other state agencies.
DNR Deputy Director Jim Schneider said Nebraska’s core water management goals — economic viability, aquifer sustainability and streamflows — are reviewed in every report. “They’re all interrelated. You can’t really tweak one without affecting the others,” he said.
Schneider said choosing the water planning and review process was “one of the conscious decisions we made along the way to say a state water plan doesn’t work for Nebraska.”
Policy versus structures
Orton was asked Monday how Nebraska rates against other states on water management.
“In some cases we are the best there is. In some cases we may be the worst there is,” he replied. “... There’s still nothing like our NRDs anywhere else. There are only pieces of that (idea).”
Mike Jess, the 1981-1999 director of the Department of Water Resources, DNR’s predecessor, said, “As time went on, it seems we’ve gotten more policy and less on the structural aspects.”
“Frequently, I think people think of planning as a way to put things off. I don’t know how we get away from that,” Orton replied.
Kuzelka said city planning includes a capital improvements plan. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a water capital improvement plan for Nebraska,” he said.
“Yes, but we’ve studied it,” Orton joked.
Schneider said Nebraska’s water management goals should include more alternative projects, such as irrigation canals and other projects to hold unallocated higher flows for groundwater recharge or retimed releases back to the rivers; more conservation innovations at the ag producer-water manager level; and flexible water markets to make the best uses of water when and where it’s needed.
Kuzelka said there needs to be a “shopping list” with prioritized projects that legislators can consider when they’re asked to appropriate funds for water management.
Orton said creating such a list will require a significant willingness to work together, which will be difficult because there always are more worthy projects than available funds.
Jess sees the importance of working together reflected in the progress he’s seen the past 15 years on the three-state Platte River Recovery Implementation Program and Republican River Compact compliance.
“What’s bothersome to me is the internal debate between irrigation districts and NRDs (especially in the Republican Basin). That’s not good for Nebraska,” he said.

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