DAVENPORT — A majority of directors of the Little Blue Natural Resources District decided Tuesday they are ready to push ahead in the process of finalizing an integrated water management plan for their district’s portion of the Little Blue River Basin.

Directors voted 10-5 to take the proposed IMP to a public hearing prior to their regular June meeting, which has been rescheduled from June 11 to June 13 due to a conflict with a Nebraska Association of Resources Districts event. The public hearing will begin at 6 p.m., with the monthly meeting to follow at 7 p.m.

The formal hearing at the district office in downtown Davenport will be conducted jointly by the LBNRD and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, since the NRD and the state agency are developing the document jointly. The document aims to promote the sustainability of water resources in the district against a long-term trend of groundwater table declines in many locations.

The Little Blue NRD encompasses all of Thayer County, most of Adams County, and parts of Webster, Clay, Nuckolls, Fillmore and Jefferson counties.

LBNRD General Manager Kyle Hauschild said that following the public hearing on June 13, the board conceivably could give the management plan final approval that same night, but may want to delay that action to a subsequent meeting in order to review or further discuss any testimony offered in the hearing.

Meanwhile, the state agency continues to work with the neighboring Tri-Basin NRD, based in Holdrege, on a draft IMP for that district’s portion of the Little Blue River Basin in Nebraska. The Tri-Basin district encompasses Kearney, Phelps and Gosper counties.

The Little Blue and Tri-Basin districts have worked together in some respects in developing their proposed plans, both of which are being prepared on a voluntary basis since the Little Blue basin hasn’t been designated as either fully appropriated or overappopriated by NDNR.

(A fully appropriated river basin is one in which interrelated groundwater and surface water resources are judged to be in balance but barely so, to the extent that additional groundwater pumpage would negatively affect streamflows. An overappropriated basin is one already judged to be out of balance.)

Having an integrated management plan either on the books or under development helps qualify a Nebraska NRD to seek funding for conservation projects through the state’s Water Sustainability Fund. Amy Zoller, integrated water management coordinator for NDNR, said all of Nebraska’s 23 natural resources districts now either have an integrated management plan in place or are putting one together.

“I’m working on nine voluntary IMPs,” Zoller told the Little Blue board during Tuesday’s meeting.

Tuesday’s vote was the culmination of nearly four years of planning and discussion, yet was far from unanimous.

Board members Marlin Kimle of Kenesaw, Alan Wiedel of Hebron, Jay Meyer of Daykin, Joe Hergott of Hebron, Bill Glenn of Fairbury, Everett Kellogg of Hastings, Steve Shaw of Edgar, Warren Brakhahn of Hastings, Charles Rainforth of Hastings and Warren Taylor of Glenvil voted in favor of the motion to schedule the June public hearing. Directors Lyle Heinrichs of Shickley, Mason Hoffman of Roseland, Kevin Kissinger of Glenvil, Zach Hollister of Hastings and Robert Trausch of Roseland dissented. Directors Lyle Schroer of Lawrence and Jesse VonSpreckelsen of Clay Center were not in attendance.

During discussion, some directors indicated they were uncomfortable with a portion of the IMP document reflecting the discussions of a districtwide stakeholder advisory committee that met several times during the plan formulation process.

The Little Blue stakeholders disagreed with each other on various issues, but in the end forwarded a set of proposed IMP “goals, objectives and action items” to the district board for consideration. The stakeholders’ document called for the board to impose groundwater pumpage rationing across the district as a proactive conservation measure, limiting irrigators to an average of 9 inches of water per acre per year over an initial three-year allocation period.

Collectively, the board doesn’t intend to be that aggressive in its regulatory approach. After revamping its allocation triggers as part of a 2017 update to the district’s Groundwater Management Plan, the board in August 2018 approved changes to the district’s groundwater management rules and regulations establishing an initial allocation of 60 total inches of water per certified irrigated acre, to be used at the farmer’s discretion over a five-year period, for an average of 12 inches per acre per year. But allocation isn’t to begin unless or until the district’s average spring static water level reading drops 1 foot below the designated baseline average level from 2016 and stays there for two consecutive springs.

(Since March 2017, all wells in the district that pump more than 50 gallons of water per minute have been required to be outfitted with flowmeters. All irrigated acres in the district have been required to be certified as such since January of this year. Flowmeters and certification of acres are virtual pre-requisites for administration of any allocation program.)

On Tuesday, some board members worried aloud that if the stakeholders’ recommendation for a 9-inch allocation is mentioned in the IMP and the state at some point designates all or part of the Little Blue Basin in Nebraska as fully appropriated or overappropriated, the state would be able to step in and make the 9-inch figure the law of the land, pushing aside the 12-inch average yearly ration the board has placed into its rules.

“I’d really like to know for absolute certain, in writing, that if we become fully appropriated we still control our groundwater allocation,” Hoffman told Zoller during Tuesday’s meeting.

In the meantime, Hoffman called for the portion of the IMP document mentioning the stakeholders’ 9-inch recommendation to be moved out of the main document and into an appendix for clarity’s sake. He proposed an amendment to the main motion on the floor Tuesday to make that move, but it was defeated by a vote of 5-10, with Hoffman, Heinrichs, Kissinger, Trausch and Kimle voting in favor.

Zoller and other NRD directors emphasized that the stakeholders’ 9-inch recommendation is nothing more than a “suggestion,” and that the authority to establish any allocation rests with the NRD board of directors.

“There’s qualifying language in there,” Glenn said. “I don’t think there’s any way it directs us or threatens us to adopt 9 inches.”

Zoller said the only groundwater control actually established in the IMP is for yearly reporting of groundwater pumpage by water users. The readings will be taken from the irrigation flowmeters already required districtwide.

The Department of Natural Resources, which regulates surface water management itself, agrees to require the same kind of reporting by surface water irrigators. In Nebraska, NRDs have the statutory authority to regulate groundwater management.

Zoller conceded it’s “unique” for the Little Blue IMP document to mention a specific recommendation for a groundwater allocation from a stakeholder advisory panel, and that it is up to the board what to do with that recommendation, but suggested that there may be benefit to not burying the stakeholders’ work product, even if all members of that group didn’t agree on the recommendations.

“Personally, I like to see stakeholder processes work, so if we go back and ask them for more input they know they’re going to be heard,” she said.

Rex Biegert, a Shickley are farmer who served on the stakeholders advisory panel, told Zoler and the board Tuesday that he was among stakeholders who didn’t support recommending a 9-inch allocation. He said he was puzzled as to why the state would tie Water Sustainability Fund eligibility to a voluntary IMP, and wondered if the provisions of a voluntary IMP could suddenly become mandatory in the event that a district was designated as fully appropriated in the future.

“If this voluntary IMP has no teeth in it, then why is it tied to funding?” Biegert asked.

By Nebraska law, IMPs are mandatory for districts with fully appropriated or overappropriated basins. Zoller said that in the event of a future designation, any district with a voluntary IMP in place would be able to avoid a moratorium on new well drilling and irrigation development during the time an IMP then was being developed.

A moratorium already is in place for a portion of northwestern Adams County that is hydrologically connected to the Platte River and where extra steps have been judged necessary to protect threatened and endangered species that rely on the Platte. Controls for that area, which includes the village of Prosser and is called the “Platte River Special Management Area,” are contained in a separate chapter of the draft IMP now up for a public hearing and possible approval  

On a related note, the Little Blue board learned Tuesday that the district won’t need to impose a drilling or development moratorium for the non-Platte-related part of its jurisdiction based on declining water levels in 2019, as the average spring static water level rose a bit from the previous spring.

The average in the district’s Geologic Area No. 1, which includes the largest share of the district, was up by .64 of 1 foot from 2018. In Geologic Area No. 2, which includes southern Thayer and Jefferson counties, the average was up .53 of 1 foot year-over-year.

The average level in both areas now stands just below the 2016 baseline — meaning it has a little more than 1 foot to drop before allocation triggers are tripped.

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