NELSON — A  Nuckolls County landowner who sent written testimony for a June 13 joint public hearing of the Little Blue Natural Resources District and Nebraska Department of Natural Resources says he supports a 9-inch-per-acre average yearly ration for irrigation pumpage in the district as proposed by a group of NRD constituents back in 2016.

What Terry Madson does not support, he said, is the larger average ration now specified in the district’s rules for imposition in the event the district’s allocation trigger is tripped in the future.

Madson, who farms and raises livestock northwest of Nelson, was part of a Stakeholder Advisory Committee with 22 members from across the Little Blue district that met seven times between 2016 and 2018 as the Little Blue district worked with NDNR to develop an integrated water management plan for its portion of the Little Blue River Basin.

He was the only Stakeholder Advisory Committee member to submit testimony in person or in writing for the June 13 public hearing. He contacted the Tribune following publication of a June 15 article on the hearing, seeking to correct a misstatement in the newspaper concerning his views on a 9-inch average yearly ration.

The June 15 Tribune article incorrectly stated that in his testimony, Madson wrote that a 9-inch allocation would be “excessively large” and higher than actual unrestricted use.

The Little Blue district, which is headquartered in Davenport, encompasses all of Thayer County, most of Adams County and portions of Webster, Nuckolls, Fillmore and Jefferson counties. Underground water supply conditions vary widely across the district, as do constituents’ views on what pumpage restrictions are or may become appropriate to conserve the resource.

The integrated planning document, known as an IMP for short, is being prepared on a voluntary basis since the Little Blue district currently is not required under Nebraska law to have such a plan in place.

The state Department of Natural Resources has been working simultaneously with the neighboring Tri-Basin NRD on a voluntary IMP for its portion of the Little Blue basin. The Tri-Basin district, based in Holdrege, encompasses Kearney, Phelps and Gosper counties. The Tri-Basin document has not yet been finalized.

Stakeholders in the two counties met together on two occasions to discuss water management throughout the basin. The Little Blue River rises south of Minden and winds its way through Kearney, Franklin, Webster, Adams, Clay, Nuckolls, Thayer and Jefferson counties before exiting the state southeast of Fairbury.

In Nebraska, the responsibility for regulating groundwater management rests with natural resources districts, whereas surface water management is regulated by the state Department of Natural Resources. IMPs address both groundwater and surface water management.

At its third meeting on Sept. 15, 2016, a two-thirds majority of the Little Blue stakeholders approved forwarding to the district board a groundwater allocation proposal allowing a total of 27 acre-inches of groundwater pumpage over three years, plus 3 additional acre-inches as a starting bank, for a grand total of 30 inches over those three years, with the initial allocation period to have begun in 2018.

The plan that was forwarded was just a proposal since the stakeholders had no actual decision-making power, and the stakeholders themselves have remained divided on the allocation issue, with some still in favor of the 2016 plan and some still opposed. The proposal is included as information within the portion of the IMP detailing the public participation aspect of the plan development process.

Since allocation regimes are based on pumpage per certified irrigated acre, no allocation program could have been feasibly administered in the LBNRD until the district completed the irrigated acreage certification program that was initiated in 2014. The final deadline for acreage certification passed on New Year’s Day 2019.

Meanwhile, the NRD board dealt with the allocation question itself through a 2018 update to its groundwater management rules and regulations. In that update, the board specified that if allocation took effect, the initial ration would be 60 inches of water per certified acre over a five-year period, plus a 5-acre-inch starting bank, for a grand total of 65 acre-inches over that first five years.

In his written testimony to the board, Madson noted that the stakeholder proposal for a three-year, 30-inch initial ration was “ignored.” In a follow-up interview with the Tribune on Tuesday, he said it was not the three-year, 30-inch plan, but rather the difference between that proposal and what the NRD later adopted, that he considers “excessively large.”

His written testimony also notes that the stakeholder proposal was arrived at “as a result of reviewing LBNRD data, review of other allocation programs, and study of production data from our area as well as other areas.”

As a point of reference, a 9-acre-inch average yearly ration has been standard in the neighboring Lower Republican NRD for a number of years. And in their document containing the three-year, 30-acre-inch proposal, the stakeholders cite LBNRD information showing 84.9% of irrigated land in the district already is irrigated with 9 inches of water or less per year.

“Where else in the state is there a ‘conservation plan’ that allows a greater use than actual unrestricted usage?” Madson wrote.

The 84.9% figure was based on past voluntary annual pumpage reports submitted to the LBNRD by irrigators, Madson said in Tuesday’s interview.

In his letter, Madson also stated that the IMP as proposed misses the intent of Nebraska law by failing to reconcile differences between conservation efforts in the Tri-Basin and Little Blue districts.

The Tri-Basin district for many years has had a moratorium on development of net new irrigated acres, yet farmers in eastern Kearney County are concerned that relatively lax restrictions now in place the neighboring Little Blue district are allowing irrigators there to pull groundwater away from them.

Madson also objects to the IMP’s failure to address the spread of eastern red cedar trees in the district.

Eastern red cedar infestations pose major control challenges for landowners and sap the soil of moisture, yet still are sold for use in windbreaks. Madson said neither the state of Nebraska nor most counties control cedars in public road rights-of-way.

Madson said the Little Blue  stakeholder group had intended to address the red cedar problem, but that NRD and state officials had limited the scope of conservation issues to be considered in the integrated management plan.

On the telephone Tuesday, Madson said members of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee had not been notified by email of last week’s public hearing, or more of them might have attended and offered their own testimony, whatever that might have been.

Over the course of the last three years, the committee members have been notified by email a number of times concerning developments with the IMP process, Madson said — and with that in mind, it was disappointing not to receive a message concerning the June 13 hearing.

“It kind of builds an expectation and a confidence level that turned out to be unjustified,” he said.

The LBNRD board’s Executive Committee plans to review the June 13 hearing testimony and place a final vote on the proposed IMP on the agenda for the board’s July 9 meeting. Both the NRD and the Department of Natural Resources must adopt the plan.

Currently, all of Nebraska’s 23 NRDs either have an integrated water management plan in place or are working to develop one. Having such a plan on the books makes an NRD eligible for conservation project funding through the state’s Water Sustainability Fund.

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