Farmers, NRD Clash Over Water Allocation Proposal


A heated debate continues over water rights in the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District.

More than 100 people attended a public hearing Tuesday in York to discuss "District Rule 5".

The proposal, which could impact 56,000 Nebraskans from Adams to Seward County, is causing concern and even anger.

But NRD officials say a plan to allocate groundwater in their nine county area is needed.

"We saw a serious decline," said John Turnbull, Upper Big Blue general manager. "We're within three feet of where the allocation trigger is."

That trigger is the 1978 level. It's been on the books for decades, but now the board wants to set an allocation number.

A proposal of 45 inches per acre over five years is being discussed. That's an average of nine inches a year.

Some farmers say that number is concerning as the state comes out of a recent drought.

"Looking at what we've been through, it's obvious maybe nine inches wasn't enough," said Curt Friesen, a Hamilton County farmer who attended Tuesday's hearing.

Instead of pumping higher yields into their crops, some farmers feel their profits will dry up.

The five year time period isn't sitting well with some of those attending the NRD's latest hearing either. Some say a three year plan would make it easier when buying or renting new land.

"There is pros and cons to both and the board finally said 'let's go with five years to give flexibility with the nine inches,'" said Turnbull.

Many are concerned about the up front costs, like meters. Friesen says it could cost $1,200 a unit. He would need to meter about 10 percent of his wells.

"Until we go into allocation, I can't see why we'd want to spend roughly $8 million putting more meters on when we could spend that $8 million making improvements on irrigation systems," said Friesen.

The Upper Big Blue has 12,000 irrigation wells over 2,800 square feet. Turnbull admits it will be a struggle, but says, with 5,000 meters needed in the area, they need to get started.

"If we're going to allocate water everybody needs to know how much water they're using and the best way to do it is to meter," he said. "You don't drive down the interstate highway without a speedometer."

Under the new rules, farmers could not transfer water from field to field without permission from the NRD. Turnbull said if you have a water-sharing agreement with a neighbor, you'll need to put it on paper.

Some farmers also voiced their concern that they wouldn't be able to buy water from others using less under the proposal.

Farmers and conservation advocates do agree on one point.

"If you take water away from this area, our communities are going to dry up. There's no reason for all these small towns to be here," said Friesen.

Many farmers at the hearing said they planned to pass their farms on to family and seemed offended by the notion that they could be wasting water.

The Upper Big Blue is taking comments on this issue through November 12, at 5 p.m.

There's no deadline on a decision, but the NRD will test water levels again in the spring no matter what. If levels have lowered to that trigger level some kind of allocation will start in 2015.