DAVENPORT — On a split vote, the Little Blue Natural Resources District on Tuesday approved a new resource planning document that encompasses both groundwater and surface water — but not before several patrons expressed their views concerning stakeholder input the document references.
Directors voted 9-7 to approve the integrated water resources management plan, or IMP, which has been in development for several years and is being jointly enacted by the district and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources.
In Nebraska, NRDs have responsibility for regulating groundwater resources management, and the state agency regulates surface water management. The Little Blue NRD encompasses all of Thayer County, most of Adams County, and portions of Webster, Clay, Nuckolls, Fillmore and Jefferson counties.
Several patrons spoke during the public comment section of Tuesday’s June board meeting at the district headquarters in Davenport. The patrons served on a districtwide Stakeholder Advisory Board that met between 2016 and 2018 to provide public input on goals, objectives and water management activities for the IMP.
None of the patrons had testified during the IMP public hearing on June 13, but went on record Tuesday taking issue with a September 2016 recommendation from the stakeholders group they served on, which urged that the district begin rationing groundwater pumpage in 2018 with an initial three-year, 27-inch allocation per certified irrigated acre, plus an additional 3-inch-per acre starting “bank.”
As it turned out, no allocation program could have been enforced that early in any event since the district didn’t finish certifying irrigated acres until January 2019.
Furthermore, allocation periods and amounts aren’t set in the IMP, anyway. The only irrigation management control measure specified in the document is mandatory yearly reporting of water usage totals, which already was being required of groundwater irrigators.
The district board updated the provisions for its pumpage allocation program several months ago in the latest revision to its groundwater management rules and regulations, establishing a five-year, 60-inch allocation plus 5-inch bank to take effect when or if the allocation trigger ever is tripped in the future.
The men at Tuesday’s meeting said they always have disagreed with the stakeholder committee recommendation, which would have allowed irrigators to pump an average of 10 inches of water per acre for that initial three-year period. They also said the vote on that recommendation, which was taken during the stakeholders’ third meeting, should not have occurred that day, and that the recommendation had been approved by the necessary two-thirds majority only because it took many group members by surprise.
“It was not an agenda item,” said Russ Ochsner, a committee member who farms in the Roseland area. “It should not have been voted on. It wasn’t on the agenda, and we didn’t have enough troops there.”
Rex Biegert, a Shickley area farmer and stakeholder committee member, said the stakeholder advisory process in the Little Blue district has received outsized attention, given that such committees are convened mainly just to fulfill a state statutory requirement concerning how IMPs are put together. He reminded the NRD board that it never was under any obligation to follow the stakeholders’ guidance, whatever that guidance might have been.
“It was no more than a committee to make recommendations to this board, and to make recommendations only,” Biegert said.
In his view, the membership of the committee was not appropriately balanced in terms of providing representation to areas of the NRD where groundwater resources are abundant and areas where the aquifer is thin to non-existent.
About 25% of the land area in the Little Blue district is underlain by a sand-and-gravel aquifer less than 10 feet thick, and in some locations it’s difficult to keep even a livestock well or household well producing consistently. Many residents in those areas have pronounced views about the need for stronger groundwater controls.
“It was pretty well weighted to the side of low-water areas,” Biegert said of the committee’s make-up.
Richard Kahman, a Fairfield area farmer who also served on the committee, agreed that stakeholders from areas with plentiful groundwater were at a disadvantage in the stakeholder input process.
“I agree with Rex,” Kahman said. “The odds were really stacked.”
(According to the IMP itself, the Little Blue NRD and state Department of Natural Resources issued a news release in February 2016 inviting anyone in the district to volunteer for the stakeholder committee. Also, personal letters of invitation were sent to individuals who were nominated for committee membership by others. In all, 22 people agreed to serve.)
The Little Blue stakeholders met a total of seven times, including twice with a stakeholder group from the neighboring Tri-Basin NRD to the west, which also is developing an IMP with the state for its portion of the Little Blue River Basin. Both districts are developing the plans on a voluntary basis, in part to be eligible for project funding through the state’s Water Sustainability Fund.
No one testified in person at the June 13 IMP public hearing, and only one patron — stakeholder committee member Terry Madson of rural Nelson — submitted written testimony.
Madson wrote to object to the IMP as proposed, arguing that the finalized document falls short of what the Nebraska Legislature intended integrated management planning to accomplish in the realm of natural resources conservation.
In his June letter, Madson said the stakeholders’ recommendation for an initial three year, 30-inch allocation had been ignored. Madson continues to support that proposal and believes the five-year, 65-inch allocation now enshrined in the district’s rules and regulations is too large.
Madson didn’t attend Tuesday’s board meeting, and no one from the audience sharing his views on the allocation issue spoke, either.
Ochsner, for his part, praised the board for its work on the IMP document and reiterated that it’s the board’s opinion, not the stakeholder committee’s, that counts.
“You’re doing fine,” he told the board. “We (stakeholders) have no authority, gentlemen. We have zero.”
During the board’s own discussion of the IMP matter, Chairman Marlin Kimle of rural Kenesaw said the board’s Executive Committee was recommending passage.
“We have reviewed the testimony that was presented to us, and our recommendation is just to move ahead with the IMP as it was presented,” Kimle told his fellow directors.
Director Zach Hollister of Hastings, who was elected to the board in November 2018, said he was concerned to hear that some stakeholder committee members felt the committee was unbalanced in its composition, and that the NRD board might be pushed to move toward a 9-or 10-inch average yearly groundwater allocation over time.
But Kyle Hauschild, the district’s recently hired general manager, said nothing in the IMP or the stakeholder recommendation it acknowledges has any direct bearing on the district’s groundwater allocation policy, and that the rules and regulations would have to be revised to alter the allocation numbers.
“The board governs this thing,” he said.
Over time, some board members have questioned the need for an IMP in the first place since the district already has a Groundwater Management Plan and supporting rules and regulations in place. But all 23 of Nebraska’s NRDs reportedly now either have such a plan in place or are developing one.
Joining Kimle in voting in favor of adopting the IMP were Warren Brakhahn of Hastings, Steve Shaw of Edgar, Charles Rainforth of Hastings, Bill Glenn of Fairbury, Everett Kellogg of Hastings, Alan Wiedel of Hebron, Jay Meyer of Daykin and Joe Hergott of Hebron.
Dissenters were Hollister, Kevin Kissinger of Glenvil, Warren Taylor of Glenvil, Robert Trausch of Roseland, Jesse VonSpreckelsen of Clay Center, Lyle Heinrichs of Shickley and Mason Hoffman of Roseland.
Lyle Schroer of Lawrence was excused from the meeting.
For more information about the IMP process and other groundwater management activities in the Little Blue district, visit littlebluenrd.org.