Archives 2017

2016-17 Water Year in Review

2016-17 Water Year in Review

In what has become somewhat of a tradition on this blog, I’ll recap the just-concluded 2016-17 water year (a water year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 of the following year) and touch on some of the factors that influenced storage supplies at Lake McConaughy for hydroelectric generation, irrigation deliveries, groundwater recharge, wildlife habitat and recreation within Central’s project area.

Lake McConaughy, September 21, 2017 at elevation 3248.2 feet (1.27 million acre-feet).

Monthly inflows during the 2016-17 water year were very near the historical median in each of the first six months of the water year.  The reservoir got a boost during April when inflows were 152% of the historical median.  The 109,809 acre-feet (a-f) of water that flowed into Big Mac during April represents the 13th highest inflows for that month in the reservoir’s 76 years of existence.  (It should be noted that some of those April inflows included transfers from the Environmental Account in Wyoming’s Pathfinder Reservoir, which were passed through Kingsley Dam for the benefit of endangered species habitat in the central reach of the Platte River.)

Other months notable for higher than normal inflows and where they rank for that particular month:  May (140,948 acre-feet, 13th); June (150,326 acre-feet, 20th); and August (89,462 acre-feet, 10th).

Projections for inflows during May, June and into early summer were optimistic, given that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation originally intended to release water that was in excess of its North Platte River reservoirs’ capacity to store (called a “spill”).  Although the spill didn’t materialize, inflows during May and June still were about double the historical median.  In anticipation of the projected spill, Central had increased releases from Lake McConaughy to create sufficient capacity in the reservoir to store the water, rather than pass inflows.  Passing inflows through a full reservoir could have contributed to high-water conditions downstream in the Platte Valley.  Despite the high early releases, McConaughy was still expected to reach its peak at or near the maximum elevation of 3,265.0 feet above mean sea level.

Then it didn’t.

Blame it on the amount of snowpack in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming.  Accumulation started on a high note, particularly in the upper North Platte Basin where it was about 130% of average as late as February.  But experienced water managers will tell you that early snowpack accumulation is not near as important as what happens during the early to mid-spring period.  That tends to be the time when more snow with higher water content falls, which usually determines whether runoff will be high, low or somewhere in between.

In this case, snowfall in the upper North Platte Basin kind of petered out and total snowpack ended up below average.  In the lower basin (above Glendo Reservoir), snowpack never did reach average levels, finishing at about 90% of average, and melted rather quickly.

In the end, the projections were a little off the mark (Mother Nature is notoriously hard to predict with absolute certainty) and as a result Lake McConaughy peaked at elevation 3,258.1 feet on June 21, within a couple of days of when the “normal” peak elevation occurs.  In hindsight, which is, as they saying goes, “always 20/20,” the reservoir would most likely have reached its peak elevation if spring releases were more conservative, but Central was acting on the best available information that called for robust runoff from a snowpack … which didn’t reach expectations.

Nonetheless, total water year inflows amounted to 1,127,049 acre-feet (unofficially), which ranked 22nd in Lake McConaughy’s 76-year history.  For comparison, the historical median inflow is 915,275 acre-feet, while the median inflow over the past 30 years is 758,071 acre-feet.  It was the third consecutive year in which inflows exceeded 1 million acre-feet, but only the fifth time in the last 18 years that it exceeded the historical median.

Another indicator of good inflows occurred this year when non-irrigation season inflows surpassed the historical median of 572,223 a-f.  Non-irrigation season – or the “storage period” when there is no demand for irrigation water – is the period between and including Oct. 1 through April 30.  This year’s inflows of 588,344 a-f eclipsed the historical median, but it’s one of only four years since 1987 that this has happened.

As it turned out, lake levels and cooperative weather were just about perfect for visitors to Lake McConaughy.  The combination of plenty of water and plenty of beach is hard to beat.  Following on the heels of a year in which Lake McConaughy ranked #2 in the state – behind only Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo – with more than 1.3 million visitors, the Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area is expected to again top the 1 million visitor-days mark, although final numbers aren’t yet available.  One of the highlights from last summer was the record-setting number of visitors over the extended Fourth of July holiday weekend.  The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission reported that the 209,813 visitor-days recorded that weekend surpassed the old record of 181,147 set in 2014.

Turning to the irrigation season, the Irrigation Division reported that 162,363 acre-feet of water were diverted into the system during the irrigation season, with average use of 7.2 inches per acre by irrigation customers on Central’s three main irrigation canals, Phelps, E-65 and E-67.

Using delivery data from 1990, 2002 and 2012 – years similar to 2017 in terms of acres, temperatures and rainfall – we see that diversions for irrigation deliveries continue to trend downward over the past 30 years.

The 1990 diversions totaled about 249,000 acre-feet; in 2002 they were around 224,000 acre-feet; and in 2012 – a year particularly noted for lack of summer rainfall – diversions were less than 194,000 acre-feet.

Dave Ford, the Irrigation Division’s manager, attributed the declining irrigation diversions to water conservation efforts and efficiency measures by Central’s customers and within the conveyance system.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is that our customers are growing more crops with less water.”

Over the past 30 years, average diversions into the irrigation canals have dropped from about 225,000 acre-feet/year to around 150,000 acre-feet/year, although that number includes six years during which irrigation customers were allocated less than their full supply of water as a result of an extended drought during the mid-2000s.

I’ll also mention that the 7.2 inches/acre average use was about two inches less than the average over the past 20 years, another indication of efficiency gains and (timely) rainfall.  Finally, of the 162,363 acre-feet diverted into the irrigation canals, more than 101,000 acre-feet was documented as going to groundwater recharge in the area during the irrigation season.  (Note that Central is also planning off-season recharge efforts with its canals as long as the weather and flows in the river cooperate.)

So all in all, it was a pretty good water year.  With all-too-fresh memories of years when inflows failed to surpass 500,000 acre-feet, we are thankful any time they surpass the 1 million mark.

As for the new (2017-18) water year, we’ll have to wait awhile and see.  For what it’s worth, the Old Farmer’s Almanac (hey, they’re as accurate as just about anyone else!) forecast for the inter-mountain region — the area where snowmelt feeds the Platte Basin — says, “Winter will be colder than normal, especially in the south, with the coldest periods from late November into early December and in late December, mid-January, and early February.  Precipitation will be slightly below normal in the north and above in the south, with above-normal snowfall in both.  The snowiest periods will be in early and mid- to late December, mid-January, early and mid-February, and early March.  April and May will be warmer and slightly drier than normal.

Finally, upstream storage in the Bureau’s North Platte Reservoirs is in good shape with Pathfinder Reservoir currently at 74% of capacity and Seminoe Reservoir 80% full.  That’s a good way to start a new year!

The blog author does not claim to be a hydrologist, but some people think he’s all wet.

UNL Law Students Tour Central’s Project

UNL Law Students Tour Central’s Project

Continuing a tradition that dates to the mid 1960s, students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law recently toured Central’s hydro-irrigation project as part of an “Environmental Law and Water Resource Management Seminar.”

The tour is part of an interdisciplinary seminar with the Department of Civil Engineering.  Emphasis usually is placed on contemporary environmental issues and water resource management.

UNL law professor Anthony Schutz, a native of Elwood, Neb., has arranged for the tour in recent years.  This year he was accompanied by Brian Dunnigan, former NDNR director and now working for the engineering firm Olsson Associates, who is a guest lecturer for the seminar.

The students and their instructors traveled from Lincoln early in the morning to meet me at Central’s administrative headquarters in Holdrege for a brief preview of the project and a description of Central’s operations.  They then jumped back onto the motor coach and toured through several stops in the irrigated area, including sites that featured pivot turnouts from the canal, a sub-surface drip irrigation installation, an example of a “drop-span” pivot near Loomis, and a site in the E67 Canal area equipped with telemetry equipment (all 80-odd customer turnouts in the E67 area have such equipment) to provide customers with near real-time water delivery and evapotranspiration data.

After a trip across the Johnson Lake Dam, a stop at the lake’s inlet and a peek at the new head gate on the E65 Canal, the group headed for lunch at the Gothenburg Barn and Grill.  The bus then headed for the Gothenburg Control Center where Gothenburg Division Manager Devin Brundage explained the control center’s function and provided more detail about generation at Central’s hydroelectric plants.

From Gothenburg, the bus headed to North Platte where Kent Miller, manager of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District, briefed the students about the NRD’s functions and current projects, including participation in the NCORPE river augmentation project.

Then it was on to Jeffrey Lodge at Jeffrey Lake where the group enjoyed a catered dinner followed by a discussion with three attorneys from the area.

The 2017 UNL Engineering/Law Student Tour group stands for a photo in the shadow of the Outlet Tower at Lake McConaughy. Law Professor Anthony Schutz is second from left, and Brian Dunnigan, guest lecturer, is at far right.

This year, rather than discussing water law, the focus was on a different legal issue.  Retired attorney and Gosper County Judge Carlton Clark, current Gosper County Judge Todd Wilson and Bronson (B.J.) Malcom, an attorney in Cozad, spoke to the law students about giving some thought to practicing law in rural Nebraska.  Attorneys in some rural Nebraska counties can be pretty sparse on the ground, which provides an opportunity for young lawyers to get started in their profession, practice in a variety of legal proceedings, and fill a need that currently exists outside of Nebraska’s metropolitan areas.

The next morning, after a continental breakfast at the lodge, the group headed to Kingsley Dam and Lake McConaughy.

The students had an opportunity to browse through the Water Interpretive Center at the Lake McConaughy Visitors Center and watched a 20-minute video featuring an actor portrayal of the late, great Sen. George Norris in which he explains the importance of water within the Platte River Basin.

Tom Hayden, supervisor of NDNR’s West Field Office Operations in Bridgeport, Neb., was a special guest speaker on the tour, explaining to the students the complicated world of water administration in Nebraska.  I could almost see the students’ heads spinning as Tom related stories of administering flows in the Platte River.  His job has become ever more complicated as demands for water increase from every direction (environmental account flows, instream flow appropriations, excess flow calculations, special water legislation, etc.).

The outlet structures and Kingsley Dam photographed from the “Hilltop” on Day 2 of the tour. As you can see by the blue skies and placid water of Lake McConaughy, it was a beautiful day for a tour.

After Hayden’s presentation, the group visited the outlet structures for Lake McConaughy (the outlet tower and the “Morning Glory” spillway), pausing for the group picture that accompanies this story.  The next stop was the “physical exercise” portion of the tour:  the trip down and back up several flights of stairs to explore the inner workings of the Kingsley Hydroplant courtesy of Kingsley Dam Foreman Nate Nielsen.

Finally, having worked up sufficient appetites, the students boarded the bus for a short ride to Ole’s Big Game Bar and Grill at Paxton where Central treated them to a lunch of buffalo burgers before sending them back to their studies in Lincoln.  Good luck on the quiz over what you learned while on tour!


Research of the District’s archives indicates that the first law school tour of Central’s project took place in March of 1964.  Professors Richard Harnsberger and John Gradwohl shepherded the first class of law students on the three-day project tour.  District personnel conducting the tour included Don Long, assistant to the general manager; Bernard Donelan, manager of the Kingsley Division; and Ralph Knepper, hydraulic engineer.  Evenings were spent at Jeffrey Lodge discussing legal aspects of the project and water law issues with Ralph Canaday, who was Central’s chief legal counsel from the first years of the District’s formation until his retirement in 1959.  Canaday remained active with the District as a consultant for several years after his retirement.

A course in water law took on new meaning for this group of University of Nebraska law students in 1964. The group is shown at Jeffrey Lodge with R.O. Canaday, former legal counsel for Central, seated in the middle, and Professors John Gradwohl (standing at left) and Richard Harnsberger (standing at right). Participants on the tour included (not in order in the photo) Earl Ahlschwede of York; Robert Calkings, Lincoln; Calvin Robinson, Broken Bow; Peter Henstad, Lincoln; David Maser, Sutton; James Sheldon, Lincoln; Robert Snell, Columbus; Richard Spaedt, Lincoln; and Dennis Winkle, Pickrell.

The water law tour has been going on ever since, with but a few interruptions caused by weather or scheduling conflicts.  Over the years, the focus of the seminar evolved from just water law and future attorneys to include graduate students from UNL’s engineering college.  Professor Ralph Marlette was instrumental in involving students from the Department of Civil Engineering in the tour.  Harnsberger and Marlette led the tours for through the 1970s and ‘80s until retiring and handing off the seminar to Law Professor Norm Thorson, and a series of civil engineering professors, including John Stansbury and Rollin Hotchkiss.

Later, former NDNR director and civil engineer Mike Jess, who was a guest lecturer for the seminar and also was once an engineering student on the tour in the 1960s, helped conduct the tours for several years.  Ann Bleed, also a former NDNR director, succeeded Jess and this year the tour welcomed yet another former NDNR director, Brian Dunnigan.  Sandra Zellmer, a UNL law professor with an impressive background in water and natural resources law has also filled in occasionally during the tour.

A feature that was added – or returned — to the tour within the past decade was the after-dinner discussion with practicing attorneys about water law.  Mike Klein, Central’s long-time legal counsel, and Judge James Doyle, now a District Court Judge, but formerly the legal counsel for some Natural Resources Districts, have led lively and entertaining discussions about various legal aspects, court cases and administrative actions involving Nebraska’s water resources.

Nebraska Hall of Fame, 2017

Nebraska Hall of Fame, 2017

As a follow-up to a March 23, 2017 blog on this site regarding the nomination of George E. Johnson for the Nebraska Hall of Fame, I regret to report that our efforts came up a little short.

Mr. Johnson was selected as one of the three finalists (among 12 nominees), but finished second in the final vote on Aug. 2 to noted architect Thomas R. Kimball.

We were, of course, disappointed in the results, although we were pleased that he was among the finalists considered by the Hall of Fame Commission.  This is in no way meant to minimize the selection of Mr. Kimball, who was also imminently qualified for inclusion in Nebraska’s Hall of Fame.  We extend our congratulations to his supporters and our thanks to the commissioners for their engaged efforts in the process.

During the public hearing at which the results were announced, more than one commissioner mentioned the difficulty of selecting from among the many qualified individuals who were nominated for the honor.

That is completely understandable.  Nebraska has produced many, many people who have contributed greatly to the state’s culture, society, and growth.  Only a relative handful have been enshrined in the Hall, which was established in 1961.  As an aside, the first member of the Hall was Sen. George Norris, who also played an important role as an advocate for Central’s hydropower/irrigation project and the establishment of public power in Nebraska.  As a contemporary of Mr. Johnson, the two worked closely for many years to gain funding and approval to build the project.

We believe that Mr. Johnson’s accomplishments and his service to the State of Nebraska make him a deserving member of the Nebraska Hall of Fame and his name will again be submitted to the commission during the next Hall of Fame nomination cycle.

Below is a list of this cycle’s nominees (the process is repeated once every five years), as well as list of individuals who are members of the Nebraska Hall of Fame.

2105-19 Nominees

Solon Hannibal Borglum (b. 1868 – d. 1922) – World renowned sculptor and younger brother of the man who carved the Mt. Rushmore national monument.  Many of his sculptures related to his life as a rancher near Cairo, Neb.

Calvin Chapman (b. 1843 – d. 1927) – A cooper (barrel maker) by trade, he worked as a “conductor” on the Nebraska City branch of the Underground Railroad, established by abolitionist John Brown to transport slaves from southern states to freedom in the north in the pre-Civil War era.  He later served as mayor of Nebraska City.

Charles Gere (b. 1838 – d. 1904) – Member of Nebraska’s first Legislature and played a role in the development of the railroad in Nebraska.  He was a newspaper publisher and steered to passage the bills that created the University of Nebraska, the state penitentiary and the state mental hospital.

Thomas Vincent Golden (b. 1853 – d. 1928) – A teacher and newspaper publisher, he was instrumental in bringing Irish immigrants to Nebraska and was a leader of the early Democratic Populist movement in the state.  Also was a leading proponent of irrigation to help offset the periodic droughts that plagued Nebraska.

Howard Hanson (b. 1896 – d. 1981) – A performing musician and composer, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 4 in 1944.  Director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

Omer Madison Kern (b. 1855 – d. 1942) – Three-term Populist congressman representing the state from 1891 to 1897.  An early advocate of farmers’ and homesteaders’ rights.

Thomas Rogers Kimball (b. 1862 – d. 1934) – An architect, master planner and professional advisor on the Nebraska Capitol Commission and administered the construction of the Capitol.  Designed a number of Nebraska landmark buildings.  Planned and designed facilities for the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha.

Rachel A.H. Lloyd (b. 1839 – d. 1900) – Arrived in Lincoln as an associate professor of analytic chemistry in 1887.  The first American woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry when she graduated from the University of Zurich in 1887.  Helped bring about the construction of the sugar beet processing plant in Grand Island in 1891 and spent her life encouraging women to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in the sciences at a time when few women were doing so.

Francis Patrick Matthews (b. 1887 – d. 1952) – An attorney, he was a part owner of WOW Radio in Omaha, which later became WOW-TV.  Also was a founding director and vice president of the United Service Organization (USO) and traveled throughout Europe, Asia and Africa during WWII to monitor the welfare of U.S. troops.  Earned the Award for Merit in 1946 for his activities.  Later served on the President’s Commission on Civil Rights, was Secretary of the Navy for two years and was the U.S. ambassador to Ireland.

Anna Sadilek Pavelka (b. 1869 – d. 1955) – Was the prototype for the character Antonia Shimerda in Willa Cather’s novel, My Antonia.  Her unique friendship with Cather was captured in the character’s pioneer spirit and determination.

Matthew Savidge (b. 1886 – d. 1916) – A pioneer Nebraska aviator, he and his six brothers were the first Nebraska-born designers, mechanics and pilots of airplanes in the state.  Traveled the Midwest putting on aerial shows, which included stunts, aerial acrobatics and skywriting.  Died at 29 in an airplane crash.

Current members of the Nebraska Hall of Fame and year selected

Sen. George W. Norris, 1961

Willa Cather, 1962

John J. Pershing, 1963

Father Edward J. Flanagan, 1965

William (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody, 1967

William Jennings Bryan, 1971

Bess Aldrich Streeter, 1971

Medal of Honor Recipients, 1973

John G. Neihardt, 1974

Sterling Morton, 1975

Grace Abbott, 1976

Mari Sandoz, 1976

Roscoe Pound, 1976

Chief Standing Bear, 1977

Robert W. Furnas, 1980

Edward Creighton, 1982

Susette LaFlesche Tibbles, 1983

Sen. Gilbert Hitchcock, 1984

Loren Eiseley, 1986

Hartley Burr Alexander, 1988

Arthur W. Thompson, 1990

Dwight Griswold, 1993

Nathan Gold, 1996

Chief Red Cloud, 2000

Charles E. Bessey, 2007

Alvin S. Johnson, 2012

For more information about the Hall’s members, visit

Climate change, 1930s-style

Climate change, 1930s-style

I found this article in a scrapbook that contained hundreds of newspaper clippings documenting the early efforts to secure approval and funding for the construction of The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District’s hydropower and irrigation project.  The clippings were taken from the Elwood Bulletin, but this particular article was written by D.E. Lawrence of the Lincoln Star.  It was dated Sept. 14, 1933, but what attracted my attention was the headline: “Believe Climatic Change, Despite Scientists’ Opinion.”

There you have it, climate change occurring more than 80 years ago!

The article or column (one might call it an “op-ed”) contains a description of the weather, various cloud formations, memories of past weather events, and speculation about why the weather patterns of the day differed so much from the past.  I found it highly entertaining and thought to myself, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Keep in mind that the column was written a year before the beginning of a period that produced what would become known as the “Dust Bowl” in the High Plains, a period of drought which – according to most historical accounts – began in 1934.

It is reproduced below, exactly as it was worded in the original.

“During the formal public works hearing before the Nebraska advisory board in Lincoln, when the Tri-County irrigation project was being given its preliminary presentation, one of the pioneer farmers of Gosper county told of the transformation that has taken place in cloud formation and rainfall.

“He started farming in the early (18)’80s.

“He recalled in those years when the thunder heads gathered into a majestic bank in the northwest, and sweeping down over Nebraska opened the floodgates.  Such a storm soaked the grass roots.  Usually, it began in the early evening, continuing on thru the night, and sometimes lasting as long as all the next day.

“There is not a long time resident of this state, who will not recall them.  Eventually, they terminated long periods of drouth, when a blistering sun had burned ranges and pastures, and fields until they resembled the brown of dead winter.  And in the morning, a state awakening after the storm had pounded on the roofs all night, discovered that nature had winnowed the dead grass into neat piles, and the prairies, which twenty-four hours before had seemed lifeless, had a tinge of green.  It brought a feeling of gladness which only the Nebraskans of that day can appreciate.  Frequently it come too late to save crops, but it cleared the air, washed the landscape, made life worth living once again, and generally was followed by such a period of golden sunshine that the sheer joy of the thing blotted out the recollections of disappointment and anxiety.

“A good many men have asked what became of the old fashioned thunder head banks which were a distinct and awesome spectacle belonging solely to plains country.  The weather man has insisted there is no change of real consequence in climatic conditions, that in reality periods of heavy precipitation and of drought follow in cycles.  It may be true so far as the gauge and the records reveal, but the magnificent grandeur of the old fashioned soaker, extending from one end of the state to the other, belongs to the past.

“This farmer, pleading for irrigation, mentioned rains of recent years, amounting to as much as three inches of moisture, while 50 miles away, only a sprinkle fell.  It might come down in buckets at Holdrege and pass by Hastings entirely.  The latter might be flooded, while a town in the next county failed to receive a drop of rain.  But when the old thunder bank had swept down from out of the northwest not a square foot of soil in Nebraska escaped a thorough wetting.

“The last storm of that character we can remember came in early July of 1908.  It deluged Lincoln, produced the greatest flood in the Salt creek valley since the days when the Nebraska capital was a straggling village, and lasted the whole night thru.  Early in the day, the thunder heads began gathering along the entire horizon – east, west, north and south.  They piled up, one on another, until the top most formation, great creamy mountains with black bases, seemed to meet in the center of the sky.  And then the rain began in the evening, increasing in force until hours later it seemed to come down in solid sheets.

“Webster contents himself simply by defining a thunder head as a cumulonimbus cloud.  In a bulletin of the conservation and survey division of the University of Nebraska, Mrs. Lillian S. Loveland wrote that ‘The cumulonimbus are the thunder and shower clouds which roll up in such an imposing manner and present a majestic appearance of mountainlike character.  The tops are light and fluffy, while the bases are of the dense nimbus character, from whose centers the showers of rain and hail descend.’

“The thunder head is given more exhaustive treatment in the encyclopedia.  Under the heading cumulo-nimbus, this appears:

‘Thunder clouds:  shower clouds.  Heavy masses of clouds, rising like mountains, towers or anvils, generally surrounded at the top by a veil or screen of fibrous texture, and below by nimbus-like masses of cloud.  From their base generally fall local showers of rain or snow, and sometimes hail or sleet.  The upper edges are either of cumules-like outline, and form massive summits, surrounded by delicate false cirrus-like filaments.  This last form is most common in spring showers.  The front of the thunder storm cloud sometimes shows a great arc stretching across a portion of the sky, which is uniformly lighter in color.’

“Without venturing into the technical field, unless imagination has played a trick, the Nebraska thunder head of the present day falls into the classification described as presaging a shower.  It may bring a lusty rain of local character.

“Early in the summer, the press accounts told of a movie outfit, armed with cameras, waiting for a three weeks stretch to snap pictures of huge thunder heads.  Its patience exhausted, it left in disgust, and two days later, most of the eastern section of Nebraska was visited by a strictly local rains, which were preceded by some truly magnificent thunder head formations.

“A technical construction engineer to whom the subject was broached suggested that the settlement of the prairies, notwithstanding an emphatic denial from the weather bureau, had altered the cloud formation so they no longer resembled those which belonged to the earlier history of the state.  He said that the thousands of farm homes, safeguarded with lightning rods, and the cities, had pulled the teeth of the old thunder head, until it no longer existed as it did then.  The facts hold more importance than idle speculation.  They have a direct bearing upon the future of the state, upon crops, upon farm homes.  If it is true that more and more rainfall is becoming localized, instead of being general, it is a matter in which all citizens are interested.  It may explain the unsatisfactory condition of the sub-soil moisture.  That, at least, was the view of a practical farmer, who has tilled Nebraska soil for more than fifty years.”

Hmm.  Maybe the old guy was on to something.

2017 Water & Natural Resources Tour: Education and Fun

2017 Water & Natural Resources Tour:  Education and Fun

The focus of the recent Water & Natural Resources Tour was on educating and informing participants about the many uses and benefits of water within the Platte River Basin between Ogallala and Holdrege, but there was plenty of fun, food and, yes, even exercise during the three-day tour.

What follows is a short(?) recap of the tour, along with some observations from the tour.

The tour participants – numbering more than 50 – assembled at Central’s administrative headquarters on the morning of June 27 and headed out via motor coach for the first stop at a site just south of the Platte River near between Elm Creek and Overton.  The site is part of what is called the Cottonwood Ranch complex, which is owned by the Nebraska Public Power District and managed for wildlife habitat purposes by the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (Program).

Jerry Kenny (with microphone) of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program describes plans for a groundwater recharge/river flow enhancement project during the 2017 tour.

Part of the 3,000-acre ranch is comprised of grasslands and wet meadows and it is here that the Program is investigating prospects for a groundwater recharge project that will benefit base flows in the Platte River.  The idea is to construct earthen berms around about 300 acres in the area, fill them with anywhere from six to 14 inches of water and allow the water to seep into the ground, which will eventually return to the river.  The shallow water would also presumably attract migrating whooping cranes as a place to forage and roost.

From there the tour headed to the Tom Schwarz farm to check out one of the few organic farming operations in the area.  It is here that Tom, his family and a few hired hands raise organic crops and vegetables in adjacent fields and small greenhouses.  The greenhouses recently sustained heavy damage from a spring storm, but inside one of the relatively undamaged structures, Tom showed off rows of peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables that are being raised without pesticides, herbicides or non-organic fertilizer.  Tom also has plans to begin a small organically raised cattle herd.

On the bus on the way to the next stop, John Thorburn, manager of the Tri-Basin Natural Resources District, explained the proposed Platte to Republican Diversion Project.  The PRD Project, as it has become known, would deliver water from the E-65 Canal to the mouth of Turkey Creek through a pipeline bored beneath Highway 23 and the railroad tracks during times when there are excess flows in the Platte River.  Any water appropriations granted by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources would be junior to all current or future appropriations in the Platte River watershed.  The project is intended to help reach objectives related to the NRDs’ Integrated Water Resources Management Plans and to assist in compliance with the Republican River Compact between Nebraska and Kansas.

After about 45 minutes at the Schwarz farm, the tour headed for Elwood Reservoir and the Carl T. Curtis Pump Station, which were added to Central’s system in 1977 to improve delivery surface throughout the E-65 Canal’s service area.  The reservoir is also used for groundwater recharge purposes during the non-irrigation season and has become known as an excellent walleye fishery.  Water is pumped into the reservoir at the pump station and then allowed to run back out by gravity when needed for irrigation deliveries.

The bus then traveled across the Johnson Lake dam; on the way the riders observed the synthetic membrane lining (a water conservation/canal efficiency measure) in the upper end of the E-65 Canal, the headgate of the canal and the inlet structure on the lake’s west side.

After a busy morning, lunch was served at the Monsanto Water Utilization Center near Gothenburg while Duane Woodward from the Central Platte Natural Resources District talked to the group about groundwater recharge efforts within the district.

After lunch the group headed out to the fields on pickup truck-pulled trolleys to examine studies of yields, insect and weed control, plant health and fertility, microbials, canopy height, drought stress and other topics.  The tour participants also observed how the center’s “rain-out shelter” is used to ensure precipitation doesn’t interfere with studies involving drought resistance of crops.

(Author’s note:  Keep in mind, all of these tour visits occurred on the same day, and we’re not finished yet!)

After a quick pause for refreshments, the group headed into Gothenburg for a tour of the Frito Lay Corn Handling Facility, where they learned that any of the snack chips consumed west of the Mississippi River originated as corn passing through this facility.  Plant managers showed and explained to the group the control room, the load-out bays and the storage facilities at the plant.

The bus then headed down the street to Central’s Gothenburg Control Center from which operational monitoring and control of most of the District’s canal structures, pump stations and hydroplants is performed.  Gothenburg Division Manager Devin Brundage also explained how the water passing through Central’s system originates as snow and rain in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming before passing through a series of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs and several upstream irrigation projects before entering Lake McConaughy.

Central’s Gothenburg Division Manager Devin Brundage explains how the District’s control center operates the hydroelectric/irrigation project.

After checking into their North Platte motel, the group was treated to dinner and wine at the Feather River Winery and Vineyard, after which the vineyard’s owner explained how the facility came to be and the process of growing hybrid grapes for wine production in Nebraska’s often harsh climate extremes.

Day 2

After a good night’s rest (well-deserved given the pace of the first day!), the tour participants boarded the bus for a stop along NPPD’s Sutherland Canal at which a still-under-construction pipeline will eventually deliver water from the Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement Project (NCORPE) well field.  A 19,500-acre farm was purchased in 2012 by a consortium of four NRDs (Upper Republican, Middle Republican, Lower Republican and Twin Platte), the cropland was converted to grassland and the irrigation wells – instead of feeding pivots – were hooked to a pipeline to deliver water to the Republican River Basin to help Nebraska’s compliance with the Kansas-Nebraska Republican River Compact.  The pipeline currently under construction will move water north to the canal and then back to the South Platte River as part of the Twin Platte NRD’s efforts to offset depletions to the Platte River caused by groundwater pumping.  TPNRD Manager Kent Miller and NCORPE manager Kyle Shepherd (who also participated in the entire tour) were on hand to explain the project’s details.

The next stop was nearby:  the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s North Platte Fish Hatchery.  Hatchery personnel, including manager Dirk Higgins, showed everyone around, including how the facility produces a variety of cool-water and warm-water fish species including walleye, white bass, blue catfish and channel catfish.  When needed, the hatchery also produces yellow perch, black and white crappie, blue catfish, wiper, striped bass, bluegill, muskellunge, tiger muskie, smallmouth bass, grass carp, northern pike and largemouth bass.  North Platte hatchery staff also makes annual collections of walleye and white bass eggs and milt from regional water bodies.  A relatively new activity at the hatchery is an effort to raise freshwater mussels, which are becoming less abundant in Nebraska’s lakes, rivers and streams.

The manager of the NGPC fish hatchery at North Platte describes the process of stocking many species of fish into Nebraska’s lakes and streams.

The bus didn’t have to travel far to reach the next stop, the UNL West Central Research and Extension Center, just a mile down the road from the hatchery.  At the center also known as the “State Farm,” Doug Hallum, Chuck Burr and Daran Rudnick explained current research activities on best management practices and measures to help producers get the most benefit from their water supplies.  Entomologist Julie Peterson also explained how the center is investigating the use of biological controls (read: bugs and/or viruses that target insect pests on the farm) as possible tools to supplement or replace chemical pesticides.

Lunch was served at the “Farm” and the group departed for its next stop at NPPD’s Gerald Gentleman Station (GGS) near Sutherland.  GGS is Nebraska’s largest power plant in terms of generating capacity.  Station Manager Gerry Phelps and a team of tour guides from the station explained the plant’s operation from top to bottom and how water from Lake McConaughy is used to cool the condensers (returning the steam that passes through the turbines to a liquid state).

The tour also included a trip to the plant’s roof, where participants could see the coal yard and immense coal-handling equipment, the water works (including Sutherland Reservoir) and enjoy the view up and down the Platte River Valley.

After the 2-1/2 hour tour concluded, the bus headed for its Ogallala motel to prepare for dinner at the Haythorn Ranch north of Kingsley Dam.  The participants were treated to a wonderful meal by Jody Haythorn and her staff at the Figure 4 Traditions banquet facility and also witnessed a spectacular sunset over the Sandhills.  As the group lingered on the veranda in the fading light, turkeys strutted across a nearby pasture where a few horses seemed to completely ignore them.  Begrudgingly, the group had to be prodded to board the bus and leave the idyllic setting as storm clouds – which would later bring torrential rain – began to roll in.

A gorgeous sunset — and an approaching thunderstorm — at the Haythorn Ranch north of Lake McConaughy where the tour group enjoyed a terrific meal and a wonderful atmosphere.

Day 3

The final day of the tour dawned clear and warm, with little evidence left from the previous night’s storm.  The tour participants headed for the NGPC’s Lake McConaughy Visitors Center to browse through the facility’s Water Interpretive Center and listen to NGPC’s Regional Supervisor Colby Johnson explain the agency’s long-term Master Plan for recreational improvements at Lake McConaughy and Lake Ogallala.  After a little more than an hour, the group boarded the bus for a tour of “Big Mac’s” outlet structures (the Outlet Tower and the “Morning Glory” spillway) and the Kingsley Hydroplant below the dam.

Devin Brundage appears for the second time on the tour, this time as tour guide for the Kingsley Hydro. Here he explains the operation of the hydroplant’s bypass valve.

Most of the tourists had never had the opportunity to peer down into the great bowl of the spillway and a few backed away from the railing at the sight of the gaping hole through which huge volumes of water could be released if necessary to control the lake’s elevation during high-water events.  At the outlet tower, where the gates for normal releases of water lie at the bottom of the lake, no hands were raised when Central’s electro-mechanical technician Jason Meints explained the routine inspection process for the inside of the tower and asked for volunteers.  All it involves is a slow ride down the 160-feet-deep shaft on a flimsy platform attached to a steel cable in pitch darkness.  (To my surprise, I’ve never had anyone indicate an interest in going down the tower during similar tours, save for a few 15-year-olds who haven’t yet developed an aversion to dark and tight spaces.)

The group also enjoyed running … well, walking … several flights of stairs necessary to reach the generator floor and turbine-pit floor deep within the Kingsley Hydroplant.  Gothenburg Division Manager Devin Brundage, pulling double duty as a tour guide, explained the workings of the largest hydroplant in Nebraska and answered questions from tourists experiencing their first visit inside such a facility.

When the group members had regained their breath after climbing the stairs back into the sunlight, the tour continued down the road to Ole’s Big Game Bar & Steakhouse for a steak lunch, one more opportunity to fuel up for the final event of the tour:  a kayak trip down Central’s Supply Canal from just below Midway Lake near Cozad to the Gallagher Canyon Lake boat ramp, a stretch of 5.5 miles.

For most tour participants, it was their first opportunity to paddle a kayak, but everyone seemed to get the hang of the easily maneuverable crafts quite quickly.  Those who chose not to paddle boarded a john boat and a pontoon provided to follow along.  Since safety was a primary consideration, Jarrid Rickertsen – a Central employee at the Gothenburg office and a licensed emergency medical technician – piloted one of the boats and was prepared to use his EMT skills if necessary.  Thankfully, there were no emergencies and the kayakers arrived at their destination in about two hours.

Along the way, the group enjoyed the scenery along the canal.  High banks, plenty of birds, the occasional fish jumping out of the water or swimming just beneath, and a group of teenagers using one of the high banks as a platform from which they could jump/dive/flip into the canal 20 feet below.

A tired, but triumphant group of kayakers climb the boat ramp at Gallagher Canyon Lake upon reaching the end of the 5.5-mile trip down Central’s Supply Canal.

Upon ending the kayak trip and re-boarding the bus, the tour concluded back in Holdrege with an impromptu pizza party in Central’s parking lot.  Three or four dozen pizzas disappeared in short order as the participants gradually departed for home, many of whom expressed their enjoyment of the tour and asked about the destination for next summer’s tour.

The organizing committee, composed of Steve Ress and Tricia Leidle from the Nebraska Water Center; Ben Beckman, research and extension communication specialist from UNL; and Public Relations Assistant Holly Rahmann and myself from Central, will convene soon for a debriefing session on this year’s tour and review comments and suggestions from surveys filled out by participants.  Then we’ll turn the page and begin planning for next year’s tour.  The destination is unknown at this time, but we’ll try to choose a tour that will be interesting and enlightening, and most importantly, fun for its participants, continuing a tradition 40 years in the making.

Central marks 75th anniversary of irrigation deliveries from Lake McConaughy

Central marks 75th anniversary of irrigation deliveries from Lake McConaughy

It was 1942.  Kingsley Dam had been closed the preceding year and Lake McConaughy was just beginning to fill.  In just under a year and a half, almost 840,000 acre-feet of water had been stored behind the dam.

This summer Central will reach a milestone:  75 years of delivering storage water from Lake McConaughy through its canal system.  In the irrigation service area (Gosper, Phelps and Kearney counties), farmers on almost 45,000 acres had signed contracts with Central for delivery of irrigation water. 

Although Central had been bringing water to the area since the spring of 1938 from a temporary diversion point on the Platte River east of Lexington, the deliveries were limited to about 3,300 acres near the river and functioned mostly as an opportunity for area farmers to learn how to best utilize water on their fields. 

Central sponsored demonstration days to show irrigation equipment and practices.  One such “irrigation school” of note was conducted on April 28-29, 1938 by Ivan Wood, an irrigation specialist from the University of Nebraska Agricultural College’s Extension Service.  Held at the Henry Peterson farm eight miles northwest of Holdrege, the school attracted an estimated 10,000 people over two days.  Wood demonstrated various instruments for leveling ground, making farm laterals, the use of canvas dams or light, steel dams for shutting off water or raising water levels in a lateral, the use of homemade lath box turnouts and how to distribute water over the field in the most practical manner.

Irrigation demonstration: Central District customers learned how to best use the newly arrived irrigation water on their farms. The first “irrigation schools” were held in 1938 on Phelps County farms and continued through the early years of the canals’ operations.

Corn yields jumped from an average of 28 bu./acre in the 1920s to more than 100 bu./acre on irrigated ground under improved farming practices during the 1940s.  The ability to irrigate was probably the most significant factor in increasing yields and producing a crop every year, even during dry periods.

But in 1942, there remained some uncertainty about how beneficial – and necessary — these new canals would be.  Most of the area had received decent rainfall during May and June, but – as often happens in Nebraska — July and August turned out to be hot and dry.  The new irrigation canals bringing water to the area proved to be a blessing for those who had delivery service contracts with Central.  Success bred success and by the end of the decade, the number of acres under irrigation doubled as more producers saw the advantages of irrigation.

A Central irrigation customer stands next to his farm lateral — equipped with wooden lath boxes through which water flowed from farm lateral to furrow (lower left corner) — and smiles at the good fortune of being able to irrigate his crops.

One such farmer was Laverne Johnson, who had started farming in the 1930s, right in the middle of one of the most brutal droughts Nebraska has ever experienced.  Johnson, who years later would serve two terms on Central’s board of directors, had been a supporter of the irrigation project during the struggle to gain approval and funds to build the project.  But from his perspective, he didn’t know if the project would be built in time to save him from ruin.

In the early 1990s, he recalled the difficulties he experienced during his first years of farming and the elation of seeing irrigation water come to his farm.

He explained that he was nearing the breaking point in the late ‘30s, having experienced crop failures and poor harvests time and again because of the lack of rainfall.

“I was almost to the point that I had to start thinking about another way to make a living, because I was just hanging on by my fingernails,” he said.  “I was excited when I learned that the project had been approved and would soon be built, but I still didn’t know if I’d be able to keep farming long enough for the water to get to me.”

Then he emotionally recalled the moment after the canals had been completed and he first saw water making its way down to his fields.

“I just dropped to my knees,” he said, “and cried like a baby because I knew at that point everything was going to be all right.”

And it was.  Over the years, Johnson would expand his farming operation, putting the additional acres under irrigation from the canals and later from wells as the groundwater table beneath the area began to rise because of recharge from the canal system.

Laverne passed away in 2001, but today the farm that he thought he was going to lose remains in his family largely because of the reliable source of water in Lake McConaughy that enabled him, and many others like him, to prosper instead of being driven from the land by the whims of nature.

UNK Research Students Complete 15th Annual Project Tour

UNK Research Students Complete 15th Annual Project Tour

Students from the University of Nebraska-Kearney had the opportunity to expand their knowledge of Nebraska’s natural resources during a tour of The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District’s hydropower-irrigation project on May 29 and June 1.

It was the 15th annual UNK tour, a milestone that demonstrates a commitment by several individuals who have been of UNK’s Summer Student Research Program (SSRP) over the years, perhaps none moreso than John Falconer, director of the Office of Sponsored Programs. Falconer has organized UNK’s participation in the tour of Central’s project each year since the tour’s inception, including making the trek to Lincoln to transport canoes for a trip down Central’s Supply Canal (more about that later).

The SSRP supports independent student research and scholarly activity each summer. It is open to students from all disciplines, and is structured to enrich the educational experience in several ways.

First, SSRP enables students to engage in original research and creative activity under the guidance of a faculty mentor. This opportunity to work closely with an expert gives the student a chance to expand their knowledge of a chosen academic discipline. Also, because the research is independent of a structured classroom setting, students experience the excitement and challenges of applying their knowledge and skills to solve problems. Finally, students draw on their general studies coursework and learn about research in other disciplines, broadening their understanding of the differences and connections between various fields of study.

Students and faculty mentors pose for a photograph atop the headgates of the Supply Canal near North Platte.

The tour of Central’s project provided students – most of whom had no background in agriculture or natural resources – a first-hand look at how water resources provide multiple benefits to Nebraska. The tour stopped at several sites and facilities within the District to see examples of these benefits.

The students first visited a site where irrigation water is applied to fields through a sub-surface drip system. The water is diverted from a small irrigation lateral through a filter system and then through buried drip lines to the crop’s root system. SDI irrigation is extremely efficient in that it reduces evaporation and deep percolation losses that may be present with other irrigation methods. Nitrogen fertilizer can also be applied through the system, literally spoon-feeding nutrients to the growing crop during the irrigation process. Producers employing SDI systems regularly see equal or better yields from SDI acres as compared to pivot-irrigated fields with generally less application of water.

Four to a wrench: Young ladies from the UNK Summer Student Research Program hoist one of the wrenches on hand for maintenance at the Kingsley Hydroplant. And it’s not even the biggest wrench!

The group also examined (briefly, because of a passing rain shower!) an example of “outside-the-box” thinking during a stop at a “drop-span” pivot system. The pivot, which can use either water from Central’s canal system, or from an irrigation well, is located on a half-section that includes obstacles that prevent the pivot from reaching a portion of the field. The solution, implemented by the producer and a local pivot dealer, was to install a pivot that allowed the producer to disconnect spans and towers to allow the pivot to reach more than 30 acres that were previously unable to be covered by the pivot. The pivot then reverses, stops at the location where the spans were dropped off, picks up the disconnected spans (with minimal labor by the producer), and continues over the rest of the field.

The group also stopped at a site that is part of the E67 Telemetry Project. The E67 Canal system includes three miles of membrane-lined canal; the rest of the delivery system was converted from open laterals to buried pipelines several years ago. Each turnout in the E67 area (approximately 6,000 acres) is equipped with UHF radio transmitters, digital flowmeters and rain gauges powered by and solar panels. Two automated weather stations measure wind speed and direction, temperature, relative humidity, net solar radiation, and precipitation to calculate evapotranspiration rates of the crops.

The data is transmitted to a base station at the nearby Johnson No. 1 Hydroplant and then via the internet to a McCrometer server where sorting and calculations are done. Field data and graphs can be picked up online by a producer’s PC, tablet or smartphone that has internet access.

The data allows precision irrigation management of these fields which saves water. Producers can start each morning with an up-to date view of graphs that show their field water balances. The information allows the producer to know where and when they need to start irrigating. Additionally, in a rain event, they will know total rainfall for the day, accumulated every 15 minutes on each field (or a nearby one) and know which irrigation systems can be shut down immediately or if they should keep running through a small rain event. There should never be water stress on a field again.

Additional components are available and producers have the option to add such equipment as pressure gauges, soil moisture probes, pivot lateral position, etc. The E67 Telemetry Project came about as a cooperative venture by Central, McCrometer, UNL Extension and the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund.

From there, the group journeyed to the Jeffrey Island wildlife habitat area, a 4,000-acre area owned and managed by Central for the benefit of wildlife. Dave Zorn, Central’s senior biologist, explained the management process and how Central has worked over the years to convert pastureland beset by musk thistle and other noxious weeds into suitable habitat for various species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals.

The next stop was at the Gothenburg Control Center, where Gothenburg Division Manager Devin Brundage explained how the vast system is remotely and automatically operated from the Control Center, moving water almost 200 miles through a series of canals, lakes, pump stations, pipelines and hydroplants from Lake McConaughy to east of Minden.

The students then stopped at the Jeffrey Hydroplant near Brady to learn about the clean, renewable generation of electricity at one of the four hydroplants on Central’s system.

After a delicious catered dinner at Jeffrey Lodge, the students spent the night at the lodge to rest up for a second full day of exploration, education, and physical exertion.

Early the next morning, the group departed for Lake McConaughy where Kingsley Dam Foreman Nate Nielsen guided them through the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Water Interpretive Center, the outlet structures for Lake McConaughy and the Kingsley Hydroplant.

Nate Nielsen (top right, gray shirt), Central’s Kingsley Dam foreman, explains the workings of the Kingsley Hydroplant to UNK students and members of a second tour group from Dawson County.

After lunch, the group set out for their final stop, a point just below Midway Lake, to conclude the tour with a 5.5-mile canoe trip down the Supply Canal to the Gallagher Canyon Lake State Recreation Area. For many, it was their first opportunity to paddle a canoe and, despite some inexperience and subsequent sore muscles, the trip was completed in less than two hours.

We made it! Two UNK students reach the boat ramp at Gallagher Canyon State Recreation Area after a 5.5-mile canoe trip down the Supply Canal.

To recap, the students saw examples of efficient crop irrigation, wildlife habitat, renewable energy generation, recreation and groundwater recharge.

Student participants on the tour were Molly Dibben, Stephanie Paulsen, Audrey Codina, Luke Hamilton, Sidney Trenhaile, Nathan Ott, Gamaliel Alcaraz, Sarah Strawn and Kendall Schumacher. Faculty mentors included Dr. Peter Longo, political science professor and interim dean of the College of Natural and Social Sciences; Dr. Mark Ellis, professor and chairman of UNK’s history department; and Dr. David Vaile, assistant professor of history.

Flow attenuation plan designed to protect nesting habitat

Flow attenuation plan designed to protect nesting habitat

With the summer months approaching, Central would like to provide a reminder about operations at Johnson Lake, specifically the requirement to adhere to a plan to protect nesting habitat for two threatened/endangered avian species along the Platte River.

The Flow Attenuation Plan, or “Spike-Flow Plan” (Plan), was developed several years ago with input from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. It is intended to help attenuate (reduce) flows on the Platte River below the Overton measuring gauge during the least tern and piping plover nesting seasons.

The Plan is designed to keep Platte River levels at lower levels, thus reducing the chances of flooding nests located on sandbars. The Plan requires Central to use Elwood Reservoir and up to 2,500 acre-feet of space in Johnson Lake and immediately above the J-2 Hydroplant to help attenuate river flows. It enables Central to respond to large rain events during the irrigation season and reduce the release of rejected irrigation water to the river.

Water is released from Lake McConaughy during the irrigation season to serve more than 100,000 irrigated acres primarily in Gosper, Phelps and Kearney counties. Water from Lake McConaughy takes four to five days to travel the 125 miles to the headworks of the irrigation systems. The Supply Canal also collects rainfall runoff in its watershed, so its flow may vary beyond what is diverted at the North Platte Diversion Dam.

On occasion, large rainfall events occur in the Platte River basin and Central’s irrigated area. Heavy rainfall increases river flows and often prompts many irrigators to stop taking water. Since these rain events sometimes occur with little notice, and water has already been released to meet irrigation demands, a large quantity of water may be moving through Central’s system when it isn’t needed for irrigation (remember the travel time between Lake McConaughy and the irrigated area). This excess water must either be regulated in Central’s system or returned to the river. Returning the water to the river means losing precious storage water for irrigation purposes.

To have 2,500 acre-feet of space in Johnson Lake to hold rain and rejected irrigation water, the lake must be kept at the lower end of normal levels. From June 1 to Aug. 15 each year, Johnson Lake will be operated near the low end of the normal operation range (see Johnson Lake Elevation Graph) so that space is available if attenuation is required. When attenuating flows, Johnson Lake levels will increase until the water is released to the river at low flows or diverted to the irrigation canals. The water levels will then decline to the lower end of the operating range in preparation for another attenuation event.

NCTA Students Tour Part of Central’s Project

NCTA Students Tour Part of Central’s Project

Another group of students from the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis recently visited Kingsley Dam and Lake McConaughy.

Brad Ramsdale, PhD, professor of agronomy at NCTA, accompanied the students as he has several times in the past.

The group first listened to a presentation by Nate Nielsen, Central’s Kingsley Dam foreman, about Central’s hydro-irrigation project before the group visited the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Water Interpretive Center where they learned about the various uses and importance of water.

After viewing a video that detailed the construction of Kingsley Dam and a five-minute audio presentation about water resources in the Platte River Basin, the group headed out to get a first-hand look at the “Morning Glory” spillway and the Control Tower, the outlet structures for Kingsley Dam. The group also toured the Kingsley Hydroplant where Nielsen described in detail the operation of the state’s largest hydroelectric plant.

Kingsley Dam Foreman Nate Nielsen explains the operation of the Kingsley Hydroplant to NCTA students.

After leaving Lake McConaughy, the students stopped at Paxton to observe the “Big Cut” through the hills north of the town and NPPD’s siphon that conveys water from the North Platte River into the South Platte basin.  The group then enjoyed lunch at Ole’s Big Game Bar and Restaurant.

The day concluded with a stop at Central’s Gothenburg Control Center where Gothenburg Division Manager Devin Brundage briefed the group on the operation of Central’s supervisory control and data acquisition system (SCADA) that controls and monitors flows in the Supply Canal and irrigation canals, generation at four hydroplants, and many other aspects of Central’s hydro-irrigation project.

Central thanks the group for visiting and looks forward to future visits by Dr. Ramsdale’s students.

George E. Johnson, irrigation and power pioneer, nominated for Nebraska Hall of Fame

George E. Johnson, irrigation and power pioneer, nominated for Nebraska Hall of Fame

Author’s note:  The following information was submitted to the Nebraska State Hall of Fame in the form of a nomination of George E. Johnson for induction into the Hall.  While I debated whether to shorten the information for inclusion in this blog article, in the end I determined that doing so would be an injustice to Mr. Johnson, his work to make Nebraska a better place, and his accomplishments throughout his career in engineering.  So, apologies to readers for the length of the entry, but — for those interested in this kind of information — it makes for fascinating reading about one of the state’s most accomplished citizens. — JB

Biographical information and narrative of his accomplishments and impact on the State of Nebraska

George Edward Johnson (March 17, 1885 – Oct. 29, 1967) was born at Wymore, Neb. He received his education in the Wymore schools until age 10 when he left home to train as an apprentice in his uncle’s foundry in Nebraska City. He became a fully qualified iron molder and machinist by the time he graduated from high school at the age of 15. By that time he had become enamored with machines and mechanics and particularly with electricity. Against his family’s wishes, Johnson enrolled at the Armour Institute in Chicago, where he received B.S. Degrees in civil engineering in 1905 and electrical engineering in 1906. He worked as a consulting engineer in several states and countries, but most of his efforts over the rest of his life were concentrated in Nebraska He applied for and was appointed state engineer in 1915 and served in that capacity until 1923. During this time, he first became aware of efforts to build the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District’s (CNPPID) hydro-irrigation project. He later served as chief engineer and general manager for CNPPID from 1935 to 1947, when he left the District to work in Argentina for three years. He returned to CNPPID in 1952 as chief engineer and later as a consulting engineer of the District’s Hydro Division and manager of the Steam Generating Division during and after construction of the Canaday Steam Plant (a natural-gas fueled plant located southeast of Lexington). He resigned from the District in January 1959, although he remained active as a consulting engineer for the District until fully retiring in 1964. He died in Hastings in 1967 at the age of 82 and was interred at Parkview Cemetery in Hastings.

Johnson is perhaps best known for his work with CNPPID before, during and after the construction of the hydro-irrigation project, known then as the “Tri-County Project,” which is anchored by Kingsley Dam and Lake McConaughy. However, he enjoyed a long and eventful career that included many other large-scale public projects in Nebraska, as well as civil and electrical engineering projects in neighboring states and in South America. He was one of the most important figures in the development of Nebraska’s public power model for providing electricity throughout the state. He served as Nebraska’s state engineer during the early part of the 20th century for the State Board of Irrigation, Highways and Drainage (an early predecessor of today’s Department of Natural Resources). While serving as state engineer, the board was renamed the Department of Public Works in 1919 and was then composed of two bureaus and one headquarters division: the Bureau of Roads and Bridges; the Bureau of Irrigation, Water Power, and Drainage; and the Motor Vehicle Records Division.

From the time Johnson started working to support the Tri-County Project in 1915 until formerly being hired in 1935, all of his time and expenses related to the project were provided without compensation, except for expenses incurred during to two trips to Washington, D.C.

Johnson’s Role with The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District

Johnson was in his first month in the state engineer’s office in April 1915 when he first learned of efforts to build an irrigation project in south-central Nebraska. George P. Kingsley and C.W. McConaughy, two early advocates of the irrigation project, visited Johnson in his Lincoln office to discuss their efforts to secure financing and approval for what would become known as the “Tri-County Project.”

As originally proposed, the project was quite simple. Water would be diverted from the Platte River into canals that would lead to area farm fields. The crop land would be flooded before and after the summer growing season when there was typically excess water in the river. Water would not be provided during the growing season; instead crops would be able to draw upon “sub-soil moisture” during the summer. Storage reservoirs were not proposed as part of the original plan. Johnson immediately recognized that such a project would never be approved or successful without plans for storage. By May he had drawn up and submitted plans to Kingsley that provided for two storage reservoirs as well as two hydroelectric plants.

Over the ensuing years, Johnson, Kingsley, McConaughy and other promoters of the irrigation project made many trips to Washington, D.C. to plead their case and to seek a federal study to correct the conclusions from a 1915 government survey that said the project was infeasible. Initially Johnson and the other Tri-County supporters attempted to convince the Bureau of Reclamation to provide the funds for the new study and to build the project as a Reclamation project.

In 1923, Johnson resigned his position as state engineer to devote more time to gaining approval for the Tri-County Project. He later wrote, “Ever since I was state engineer in 1915, I have been concerned with the effort to conserve our most valuable resource, water. Without water, the land is unproductive. With water, crops will flourish. Full utilization of the water flowing through the state for irrigation and electrical power is vital to our economy.”

The Tri-County delegation finally secured a resolution from Congress directing the Reclamation Service to conduct another survey and prepare a report on the feasibility of the project. In addition to Reclamation dollars, funds were raised by the Tri-County Supplemental Water Association by agreement with Reclamation to supplement the federal contribution. The “Smith Report,” as it became known, was favorable to the project, but a long road still lay ahead. Five different designs for the irrigation project were proposed; the fifth was a plan that called for a complete project with two reservoirs on Plum Creek impounding a total of 509,000 acre-feet of water, a hydroelectric station below each reservoir, transmission facilities for the power, and approximately 500,000 irrigated acres.

While the feasibility study was underway, Johnson and Dr. George Condra, director of the Conservation and Survey Division (CSD) at the University of Nebraska from 1921 to 1954, were evaluating several alternative sites for a reservoir. They concluded that the most suitable location was near Cedar Point on the North Platte River, the site where Kingsley Dam would eventually be constructed. But for the time being, these alternative sites were set aside.

The rest of the 1920s and early ‘30s brought one disappointment after another to Johnson, Kingsley, McConaughy and other irrigation supporters.

Meanwhile, using as a template a bill that he had drafted in Missouri to provide for the organization of municipal water and sewer districts, Johnson drafted what would become known as Senate File 310 for the 1933 session of the Nebraska Legislature. The bill provided for the creation of public power and irrigation districts in Nebraska and was eventually passed by the Legislature, despite vigorous opposition from private power interests, and signed into law.

Johnson and the other Tri-County supporters continued to press on toward the vision they shared for the future of Nebraska. On July 24, 1933, the Nebraska Department of Roads and Irrigation approved a petition to organize the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, although many hurdles remained to be cleared before the project became a reality. The remainder of the year was spent preparing an application for funds to the newly created Public Works Administration (PWA). The state PWA board approved the application in November and sent it to Washington.

It was too late. PWA funds had been depleted and Tri-County supporters were told they would have to wait for the next session of Congress.

However, while Tri-County struggled to gain a foothold, another irrigation project was trying to secure a Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) loan. The Platte Valley Public Power and Irrigation District (also known as the Sutherland Project) and the Tri-County Project thus became competitors for funds as well as for Platte River water rights. The legal and political battles that followed were frequent and intense.

The Sutherland Project was given final state approval in June 1933 and its application was transferred from the RFC to the PWA. It was one step ahead of the Tri-County Project. However, Tri-County had already established a prior claim for a water right, while the Sutherland Project had yet to secure the necessary water rights. The main protest from Sutherland was that there would not be enough water in the Platte River for two irrigation projects. Sutherland repeatedly challenged Tri-County’s water rights, but to no avail.

Tri-County and Sutherland finally reached a compromise water rights agreement on Jan. 13, 1934, which resulted in water rights for both districts. Meanwhile, the PWA continued to study the Tri-County project and had given preliminary approval to the proposal, although there was some doubt about the project’s power generation claims. The PWA engineers also questioned if there would be a sufficient market in Nebraska for the electricity. Johnson went to Washington, rented a hotel room by the month and prepared to stay as long as necessary to convince the PWA that their concerns were unfounded.

During this time, to help answer the PWA questions, a Tri-County power market survey completed in February, 1934 showed 24 communities interested in Tri-County power.

While Tri-County leaders continually battled opposition from supporters of the Sutherland project and the City of Grand Island, opposition sprung up in a surprising place: the area which was to receive the benefits of the irrigation water, particularly Phelps County. Many farmers were skeptical that the project was needed in the first place. They also feared that the project would be too expensive, that it would bring about higher taxes and that the project would never be able to pay for itself. Project opponents, particularly private power companies, were quick to instigate and play up these fears.

Indeed, with rainfall generally plentiful at the time, it was difficult to make a case for an irrigation project. However, the 1930s ushered in a period of drought and depression that gripped the nation, circumstances that may have been a boon to Tri-County supporters. They pointed to withering corn fields and dusty topsoil being blown into drifts and said, in effect, “This could all be prevented; the project could offset the effects of drought and help this area prosper in the face of drought.”

Another important development occurred in April 1934. PWA engineers visiting Nebraska suggested that a dam and reservoir be built on the North Platte River near Keystone – at the site that Johnson and Dr. Condra had determined to be ideal in 1922 — instead of the two Plum Creek Reservoirs proposed in Tri-County’s plan. The dam would store enough water to supply the Sutherland project, the Tri-County project and, said the engineers, some future irrigation projects.

Tri-County immediately filed for storage rights behind the proposed dam.

The Keystone (Kingsley) Dam proposal probably saved the Tri-County project. The PWA had decided to reject the project, but the project was transferred to a special review board which endorsed it with the new dam site. But an obstacle remained: the PWA still had no funds to provide.

Regardless of the review board’s assessment, the PWA’s engineering and finance divisions had rejected the project because they believed that costs would far exceed submitted estimates and the power generation proposal was “technically unsound.” Johnson submitted a new application with revised cost estimates to the PWA on Jan. 23, 1935. The board recommended that a way be found to avoid duplication of the power market served by Sutherland.

Johnson’s application on Tri-County’s behalf was again revised and submitted to the PWA Power Division on Aug. 1, 1935. It included a diversion dam near Keystone, the Plum Creek reservoirs and power plants. The cost was estimated at $33.6 million.

Three weeks later, Johnson submitted Tri-County’s final application to the PWA. In an effort to contain costs, the Keystone reservoir proposal had been dropped and the size of the three power plants had been reduced. In addition, plans to build the Plum Creek reservoirs were resurrected.

The long-awaited approval of the Tri-County project came on Aug. 24, 1935. The power division of the PWA recommended approval of a $20 million loan to the project after Tri-County’s water rights were validated.

As approved, the project would bring water to 305,000 acres from just west of Bertrand in Gosper County to 10 miles east of Minden in Kearney County. Another 144,000 acres in Adams County would also receive water.

Celebrations erupted throughout south-central Nebraska when the news was made known on Sept. 26, 1935. A parade, complete with bands and floats, was staged in Hastings as tribute was paid to Tri-County’s leaders. The people of Adams County had been among the project’s staunchest supporters, but a turn of events denied them the water for which they had worked so hard. The Sutherland project continued its opposition even after President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially signed the approval for the $20 million loan on Sept. 18, 1935. In addition, Nebraska’s six large private power companies opposed the Tri-County loan by bringing suit against the PWA.

The opposition from the Sutherland supporters and the power companies resulted in significant changes to the original water claims, the most important of which was the PWA’s recommendation in November 1935 that a large reservoir on the North Platte River be constructed after all, instead of the Plum Creek reservoirs.

Tri-County leaders accepted the PWA’s recommendation and the two Plum Creek Reservoirs were dropped in favor of one large reservoir at the Keystone site. Johnson also drew up plans that would increase electrical generating capacity.

Opponents of the project tried one more time to stop its construction, filing an appeal in the Nebraska Supreme Court in December 1935 in opposition to the granting of Tri-County’s water rights.

The court’s ruling in the case came on June 29, 1936. Although the court refused to reject the water rights outright, it did rule that the project could not divert water out of the Platte River watershed, thereby eliminating more than half of the lands which were to receive irrigation water, including all of the acres in Adams County. Repeated attempts by Tri-County leaders to have the acres reinstated were unsuccessful. In subsequent years, several legislative attempts to revise Nebraska’s irrigation laws to permit trans-basin diversions also failed before the Supreme Court ruling was overturned in 1980 and such diversions legalized (Little Blue NRD v. Lower Platte NRD).

Construction of the Tri-County project began on March 13, 1936 with ground-breaking ceremonies on the Phelps County Canal, followed by simultaneous work on Kingsley Dam, the North Platte Diversion Dam, a 76-mile-long Supply Canal, three downstream hydroelectric plants and the irrigation canals and laterals. Most of the construction on the project’s works was finished during 1940 and water began flowing into the Supply Canal in November 1940. The first power was generated at the Jeffrey plant on Jan. 5, 1941. Johnson looked over U.S. Sen. George Norris’ (a steadfast supporter of the project from the beginning) shoulder as the senator pulled the switch to bring the hydroplant on-line for the first time.

Kingsley Dam was closed shortly thereafter allowing storage in Lake McConaughy to begin. The dam was officially dedicated at ceremonies on July 22, 1941 and the first irrigation water from Lake McConaughy was delivered that same year. Irrigation delivery and related operations began in earnest in 1942 and the project was officially completed in 1943.

As the project’s major facilities were completed, they had to be named. In recognition of Johnson’s tireless efforts to see the project through to completion, Tri-County’s board of directors decreed that two hydroplants – Johnson No. 1 and Johnson No. 2 – and the regulating reservoir above them (Johnson Lake) should be named in his honor.

The total cost of the Project was $43 million, paid by a $19 million PWA grant and a $24 million federal loan (the federal debt was paid off when the loan was refinanced in 1972; the refinanced portion of the debt was paid off in 1995). The Depression-era construction project provided jobs to more than 1,500 people, but it was not simply a “make-work” project. It was the culmination of many years of planning and hard work by George Johnson, Fred Kingsley, Charles McConaughy, Sen. Norris and many others. It was the realization of the hopes and dreams of a group of irrigation pioneers who foresaw the prosperity irrigation water would bring to south-central Nebraska.

(Note: Research into media accounts of the development and construction of the “Tri-County Project,” which was the subject of many headlines in newspapers across the state in the 1930s and ‘40s, frequently mentioned Johnson as the chief engineer of the project, but his significant role was played out mostly behind the scenes. Johnson was not a “self-promoter,” rather he was an engineer who engaged in the physical and technical aspects of a project’s construction, whether it was the hydro-irrigation project, a plant to convert surplus grain to fuel, or military air bases in the state. That said, when necessary, he could assume the role of a lobbyist. In fact, a contemporary once called him “the slickest lobbyist in Washington.” Johnson disputed this designation by saying, “I did not see myself that way. True, I was lobbying to bring industries to the State of Nebraska. However, my methods were successful not because I was “slick,” but because I used basic engineering methods. I did not present “argument,” instead I marshaled the facts, as I would in an engineering report, so that the conclusion was almost inevitable considering the facts presented. Then, I always saw that these facts reached the right people at the right time. In these efforts, I was greatly aided by Senator Norris and his staff.”)

Early Career

Johnson’s early career, between graduation from the Armour Institute in 1906 and 1915 when he was appointed state engineer, was an eclectic mix of projects on which he honed his civil and electrical engineering skills.

He first worked in the electrical department at Swift’s Packing Co., in St. Joseph, Mo., then at the Columbian Electrical Co., designing power plants and distribution systems for cities and towns that were customers of the company.

In 1907, he worked on his own as a consulting engineer in Holton, Kan., where he designed and supervised the construction of an electrical generating plant and distribution system and a water and sewer system for the town.

Two years later, he moved to Sabetha, Kan., where he led similar water and power projects in addition to laying out a paved road system in the town. He also designed a power transmission line system from Sabetha to nearby small towns. Finally he designed and supervised the installation of a steam heating system, using the exhaust steam from the newly constructed power plant to heat buildings in the town’s business district.

In 1911, Johnson took his skills to Falls City, Neb., where he was involved with expanding the power and water system for the town. He also laid out plans for construction of a new sewer system and paving the community’s streets.

It was during this period that Johnson first encountered opposition from private power companies to his work to improve the water supply and sewer systems and electrical service in Horton, Kan. He later saw similar opposition in Atcheson, Kan., where the private power company owners perceived his work as a threat to their business. He implemented a process in Horton through which bonds were issued and, after the citizens voted to issue the bonds, the city took over the properties for water and power. He repeated this formula in Atcheson, despite interference with his efforts from the private power companies.

From that time on, firm in his belief that no one should realize excessive profits from the sale of such essentials as power and water, Johnson devoted virtually all of his work to public service, often times working without remuneration when he felt such an arrangement was necessary.

State Highway System

Johnson decided to pursue the position of state engineer in 1915. World War I had interfered with most municipal engineering work due to higher bond rates that made it difficult for municipalities to secure favorable financing for public projects. He was appointed to the position from among 14 other candidates and was reappointed in July 1916 by Gov. Keith Neville, Attorney General Willis Reed, and Land Commissioner Grant Shumway, who comprised the State Board of Irrigation, Highways and Drainage.

Also in July 1916, the first Federal Aid Road Bill was passed by Congress to make allotments to the states to construct interconnected highways between the states. Working with Deputy State Engineer Roy Cochrane, the federal government and county commissioners in several counties, they planned the routes for the State Highway System. The United States entered WWI in 1917, and Cochrane left his position with the state to join the Army as a captain and embarked for France. By that time, much of the work to lay out the highway system had been done, including field engineering, plans and specifications, but the actual awarding of contracts was delayed until after the war ended. Shortly thereafter, the state began to award contracts, a process that was in high gear over a period of several months. During this process, Johnson was instrumental in developing the state-federal dollar matching program for highways, which later became standard across the nation.

At the time, Johnson was a member of the executive committee of the American Association of State Highway Officials and a member of the Federal Highway Advisory Board. After the war ended, only $75 million had been allotted for highway construction across the United States. Johnson and the heads of the other highway departments convinced President Woodrow Wilson that another $200 million would be sufficient to begin awarding contracts for construction, which at the same time, would help alleviate a severe unemployment issue.

By the end of his fourth two-year term as state engineer in 1923, more than 3,000 miles of highways had been improved and the state highway department had been expanded to employ more than 600 people. The State Highway System in Nebraska at the time consisted of about 6,500 miles of roads.

Johnson worked with Nebraska county officials to set up a system so that roads were laid out beginning at the county seats and extended out to the county lines on the north, south, east and west. This was necessary to convince the rural members of the Legislature (who were in the majority at the time) that road improvements would also benefit farmers. He would later write that Nebraska’s system, as created, generally carried more farm traffic per mile than any roads in the country.

After acquiring surplus equipment from the Army, the roads department set about grading operations in preparation for the construction of gravel roads, a vast improvement over the dirt roads they were replacing. Johnson worked to secure equipment to develop both dry and wet gravel pits and began the program for graveling roads. Johnson worked with Dr. George Condra to develop a process to mix and spread the gravel in different sections, according to local soil types. Johnson later noted that the same method was used up through at least the 1960s.

When Johnson became state engineer in 1915, automobiles were rare and roads on which they could travel without difficulty even more rare. By the time he left the state engineer’s office in 1923, most of the state had come to rely on the automobile in one way or another. Traveling by horse and buggy had become a thing of the past, the state had a functional road and highway system, and the State Highway Department had been created. Johnson’s contributions to these developments – in terms of securing legislation and funds and actually planning and building the roads – were significant.

State Capitol Building

The Legislature authorized construction of the Nebraska State Capitol during Johnson’s tenure as state engineer. A Capitol Commission was organized and Johnson was appointed a member, in a capacity that Johnson would later refer to as a “watchdog” over the construction process and expenditure of state funds. Following the advice of Tom Kimbell, an Omaha architect who was hired as an adviser, the commission held a preliminary competition allowing all architects in Nebraska to submit plans for construction of the building. The winner was given the right to compete in the final competition with other architects from across the nation. The final award was made to Bertram Goodhue of New York.

After the award was made and plans submitted (and taxes were raised to pay for the building), Johnson spent considerable time making studies of the size and arrangement of the offices, Legislative chambers, the Supreme Court, and State Library within the building. During this process, he considered the function of the offices and their relationship with one another to maximize the efficiency of movement by employees between the offices with which they had frequent contact.

In 1922, as work progressed on the building, the contractor providing the limestone started shipping large amounts of material that did not conform to the original specifications (No. 1 Bedford Limestone with crush strength of no less than 8,000 lbs. per square inch). Some was No. 2 limestone, part of it No. 3 and part was below the lowest grade of less than 4,000 lbs./sq. in. Past experience had determined that the soft limestone would deteriorate fairly quickly in Nebraska’s climate and Johnson refused to approve the contractor’s claims for payment. However, he found that the limestone had been approved by the representative of the architect and the claim for payment had been approved by the clerk representing the architect at the building site.

In addition, certain other specifications had not been revised to meet with the Capitol Commission’s approval, such as the materials for casement windows. In some cases, the specifications were written such that a single company manufacturing certain items was the only one that could meet the specifications. During a discussion with the architect, Johnson asked if anyone was getting a commission for adopting the use of their equipment or materials for the project. His reply was, “Certainly, it’s common practice.” After discussing his concerns about the issue with the other members of the Capitol Commission, the commission chose not to pursue the matter.

Johnson then went to the Legislature with a joint resolution asking for an investigation into the practices of the architect and contractor. He filed a statement with 26 charges against the firms, and the Capitol Commission added two more charges. The results of the investigation and findings of a committee convened for that purpose were published in the House and Senate Journals for the 1923 session of the Legislature. The investigation’s resulted in significant cost savings for the State and the quality of the capitol building construction was enhanced.

However, while some of the stone that had been laid was removed and replaced, during subsequent changes extremely large mortar joints were made in the walls of the building. Johnson stated that these joints had been shown by experience to shrink in Nebraska’s climate as the mortar cured. Johnson was concerned that water would get into the joints and the freeze-thaw process would cause the mortar to spall, or crumble and fall out. His concerns went unheeded at the time.

Since nothing was done to correct the size of the joints, the State was subsequently faced with a continual task of refilling the joints over the decades after the building was completed. In fact, a 1995 inspection of the entire exterior surface of the Capitol was conducted by consultants, who determined that Nebraska’s seasonal temperature extremes and resulting freeze-thaw cycle had caused extensive movement and cracking in the stone building face and roof system sufficient to require major reconstruction of these critical building components. Johnson had warned of the inadequate joints during the construction process, but no corrective action was taken. Decades later, the need arose to repoint the mortar joints throughout most of the exterior of the building, a project that started in 1997.

Contract Work after Resigning from the State Engineer’s Position

Johnson took a three-month vacation to Spirit Lake, Iowa after leaving the state engineer’s position, one of the few real vacations he admitted to taking over his career. He then proceeded to organize the Economical Bridge Association, a company that built bridges and sold bridge material and lumber. His company built large bridges over the Platte River at Cozad and Gothenburg and was involved in construction of another Platte River bridge between Omaha and Plattsmouth.

The Omaha/Plattsmouth bridge was constructed on the basis that promoters of the bridge would take tolls until the cost of construction was paid and then the bridge would be turned over to the State of Nebraska without charge. The company also built two bridges over the Arkansas River in Ford County, Kan., plus another 22 steel bridges over tributaries to the Smoky Hill River in Ellsworth County, Kan.

Johnson sold the bridge company in 1928 and accepted a position with Blackmer Post, LeClede Christie and Evans and Howard in St. Louis. It was during this time that “we secured a law in the Missouri Legislature which was referred to as the basic law that was used for Senate File 310 in the Nebraska Legislature.” This law not only authorized the creation of districts and the construction of works in each district, but it also provided that a tax levy could be made sufficient to cover the cost of the preliminary engineering work. One of his first duties was to oversee engineering during the process of building a new sewer system in St. Louis using vitrified clay pipe. The stock market crash of 1929 caused the project to be delayed until the Public Works Administration was established and government funds were available to complete the project. By that time, Johnson was heavily involved in the development of the hydroelectric and irrigation projects in Nebraska and did not return to St. Louis.

War Plants and Ammunition Depots

Johnson played a significant role in attracting defense and munitions factories to Nebraska during World War II. In his own words:

“During the year of 1941 there were a large number of persons moving out of the State of Nebraska to other states to work on defense plants which were being located in these states. Mr. Burton Thompson, Mr. Howard Pratt and others requested me to go into the problem of securing some of these defense plants in Nebraska, especially one at Hastings for the purpose of stopping this migration. As we had a considerable amount of surplus power at that time, I was satisfied if some of these plants could be located in Nebraska, we would very materially increase revenues to our hydro districts without increasing costs. I did considerable work in 1941, in 1942 extending into 1943, to secure defense and war plants and a part of the aviation program for the State of Nebraska. This included all of the defense and war plants and aviation fields located in Nebraska by the government with the exception of the Bomber Plant at Omaha and the Lincoln Airbase. The only substantial help I had from anyone in Nebraska in securing these defense plants, war plants and this aviation program was Carl Marsh of McCook, Lloyd Thomas of Kearney, who helped with the aviation program, and Emil Placek of Wahoo, who assisted with the Mead Ordnance Plant. Senator Norris helped in Washington with all the programs in the state with the exception of the Hastings Navy Ammunition Depot. He was in the hospital during this period and was unable to help us.”

For most of 1941 — and with the blessing of CNPPID’s board of directors — Johnson devoted about half of his time to working on various defense projects, until the war started after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. At that point, the plants were no longer referred to as “Defense Plants;” they became known as “War Plants.”

Johnson started by contacting Sen. Norris, who said he would do all he could to help located munitions plants in Nebraska. One of the primary factors Nebraska had in its favor was the recent completion of the hydropower system, which meant that plentiful and inexpensive power supplies would be available to the facilities. Working with Emil Placek of Wahoo and Sen. Norris, the first Army ammunition plant that was secured in Nebraska was located at Mead. Johnson had tried to have the plant located near Hastings where it could help alleviate the exodus of workers to other states’ military ammunition plants. However, the Army Corps of Engineers selected Mead because of its proximity to Omaha and the city’s surplus labor supply.

The Nebraska contingent also succeeded in attracting a second ordnance plant to a site near Grand Island which had ready access to sufficient water supplies for the plant. Johnson also worked on bringing “powder plants” to Fremont and Columbus, which ended up being built in other states after premature “local information leaks” about the prospective plants in each of the cities angered the military planners.

Johnson eventually was successful in bringing a War Plant — the Naval Ammunition Depot — to Hastings after working closely with several Naval officers in Washington. Among these was Chief of Ammunition Commander R.W. Holsinger, who was traveling by rail to various sites in states near Nebraska to review potential sites for ammunition plants. Johnson, in Washington at the time, contacted Cmdr. Holsinger on a Monday about the Hastings site, but was told the commander was leaving by train on Wednesday and could not change his travel plans unless an application for siting a plant was filed with his office by 9 o’clock Tuesday morning. Previously, Johnson had prepared plans for a chemical warfare plant at the site near Hastings. He worked quickly to adapt the plant to the Navy’s specifications and submitted the application on time the next morning.

Johnson then traveled to Grand Island to meet Cmdr. Holsinger’s train, drove him to the site near Hastings and eventually convinced the Naval officer that the site was perfectly suited for the Navy’s needs. Within two days of Cmdr. Holsinger’s visit, it was announced that an original allotment of $90 million would be made for constructing the ammunition plant at Hastings.

Securing these government expenditures in the state, which amounted to approximately $400 million, not only helped the state from the standpoint of bringing in additional buying power for its citizens, thus benefiting local merchants, but increased the revenues of the hydro districts and helped solidify their status during the early days of operation.

Military Aviation Fields in Nebraska

In the early 1940s, while Johnson was working to bring defense and war plants to Nebraska, he was approached by Sen. Norris to help with a request from municipal representatives from McCook and Kearney to attract Army Air Corps bases to Nebraska. He arranged for a meeting with Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson, who was instrumental in the mobilization of the armed forces preparatory to and during World War II. Johnson’s goal was to convince the under secretary that Nebraska was an ideal site for air bases, rather than expanding operations in the southern United States where weather was judged to be better for flight training.

Johnson was given 20 minutes with Patterson to state his case. He informed the under secretary that he had been studying the Army’s training regimen for pilots, which included “more good days for primary training in the southern states than there were in Nebraska and other northern states, and it was more economical to provide training in warm weather states where trainees could put in more time because better weather conditions and advance more rapidly.”

Johnson wrote in his memoirs:

“I told him that that the Army was making the same mistake they had previously made by training the fliers in southern Texas and Florida. The program they were following was to start out the trainee on making circles around the air field and later out across part of the country and then come back and land at the airport from which they had started. From the experience we had in training students at Lincoln (Johnson had established a flight school in Lincoln shortly after WWI), the students trained in that manner would soon learn that when they reached a certain point from the field at a certain altitude, all they had to do was pull back on the throttle and they would land at the right place, learning very little about making landings under different conditions. As all the flights were made in practically the same weather, they did not advance much in their training.”

He also pointed out that pilots trained in this manner and later assigned to fly airmail planes for the U.S. Post Office had a poor safety record and experienced many crashes because they had been trained to fly only in favorable weather conditions. When they encountered poor flying conditions, they were more likely to crash than if they had previous experience with inclement weather.

Johnson suggested that in an expanded training program, the trainees could start at southern airfields and when they advanced to better, faster airplanes, they could be trained to take off and land under different conditions typically experienced in Nebraska. They would also be able to fly from airfield to airfield in Nebraska, taking off and landing at different locations that would require the pilot to calculate and think for himself each time under different conditions.

At this point in the meeting, Patterson halted Johnson, rose from the table to summon some more Army officers, and had Johnson repeat the ideas and suggestion that he had just made. The 20-minute meeting turned into a three-hour meeting as Johnson made his case for locating air bases in Nebraska.

As a result, the Army expanded its training program to add major fields at Kearney, McCook, Harvard, Fairmont, Lincoln and Scottsbluff. Together with the ammunition plants and depots, the addition of the Army air fields in Nebraska brought greatly increased investments into Nebraska’s war-time economy.

Omaha Industrial Alcohol Plant

In January 1942, while Johnson was working to attract ammunition plants to Nebraska, he also stated that it was “evident that it was going to be necessary to very materially increase the (ethyl) alcohol production in the United States for war purposes.” The alcohol could be used for industrial purposes, including synthetic rubber manufacturing, and to blend with gasoline to produce a high-octane motor fuel. One of the incentives for increased production, according to Johnson, was the large stocks of corn and other grain that were in storage, either in bins or simply in piles on the ground.

With the Japanese having taken over much of the territory in the South Pacific where sugar cane production was prevalent and German submarines interfering with trade between the United States and Cuba, again where sugar cane was produced in abundance, alternate sources of crops to produce what is now commonly referred to as ethanol were needed. In addition, acquisition of rubber from sources in Southeast Asia, the main commercial source of latex for rubber making, had also been disrupted by the war.

Despite learning that the chemical division of General Motors Corporation had determined that only an additional 150 million gallons of ethyl alcohol per year would be sufficient, Johnson’s conversations with other industrial representatives, including the Rubber Reserve Board, led him to the conclusion that the government’s requirements would exceed 600 million gallons per year. Farm organizations in the country were anxious to help fill that need. He also surmised that, if alcohol plants were built to assist the war effort, they would be in place after the war ended to provide a market for surplus grain and help bolster crop prices.

A bill passed without dissent in the U.S. Senate in 1942 that would provide for an allocation of equipment and material to manufacture synthetic rubber from grain products. Although the bill was vetoed by President Roosevelt, he asked Congress to take no further action on the bill until a report by a specially appointed committee could be completed regarding the feasibility of using domestically produced alcohol in the process. Known as the Baruch Report, it subsequently recommended that plants be immediately constructed in the Midwest – near the primary areas for grain production — on navigable streams to manufacture alcohol from grain.

Subsequently, and after a conversation with the director of the War Production Board, Johnson revised one of five initial applications for alcohol plants in Nebraska to convert a former power plant in Omaha to the production of industrial alcohol. Within a week of learning that the board’s wanted to build just one, rather than five plants and combine all production into that single plant, Johnson prepared an application and a redesigned plan for a facility that was capable of producing 50,000 gallons of alcohol per day.

When the application was filed, he was told that the government would require changes to the plans necessary to facilitate production of 100,000 gallons per day. Within another week, Johnson revised and submitted his plans which were accepted by the board and approved by the President.

Authorization was received just one year and two days after the Johnson submitted his original request for an allocation to build an alcohol production plant. Using mostly second-hand materials, the plant was constructed and went on-line within one year of receiving final authorization.

It was the first time in the United States that industrial alcohol was made through a continuous process, starting with unloading the grain from rail cars and ending with placement of the alcohol in tank cars. The mash, or animal feed, that resulted from the process was also loaded into train cars for distribution to area producers. Another by-product of the process was corn oil, which was later marketed as Mazola Oil. Other uses included manufacture of a soap stock from the residue of the corn germ and malt syrup (300,000 lbs./day) which could be used to help alleviate the shortage of sugar for sweetener during the war.

The Omaha Alcohol Plant was one of the larger consumers of electricity generated at Nebraska’s hydroelectric plants. Immediately upon starting this plant, the demand charges of the hydros to the Nebraska Power Company – a private power company in Omaha until being purchased by the public power districts in 1946 — was increased an extra $5,000 per month or $60,000 per year (about $915,500 in 2016 dollars); in addition to the Districts being paid for the energy used which had previously been sold as surplus or dump power without demand charge, this one plant was worth $60,000 per year to the hydro districts from the day of its starting operation. The other war plants and air bases all helped in proportion to the power used.

Over the last six months the Omaha plant was operated for the government, it produced products at the lowest cost and at the most economical level of all alcohol plants in the United States.

Johnson later wrote that he testified before a Congressional Committee about the need to stabilize agriculture in the Midwest as part of a solid economic foundation:

“… I explained how we were sending out most of our raw materials and buying finishing materials. I also explained that to build up the maximum economy of our people, it was necessary to manufacture more of the things we need from the raw materials we produced. It was also necessary to take care of our surplus in an economical manner, and if the surplus was taken care of, the farmers could be allowed to raise all of the crops they wanted to raise without restriction, and the only control would be the amount of farm crops that would go into the manufacturing of alcohol for motor fuel. This should be controlled by Department of Agriculture, also the price that was to be received for alcohol for motor fuel should be controlled by the Department of Agriculture, so the manufacturers of alcohol would not be given a monopoly without control.”

Johnson was one of the principle early supporters of a movement – which would take many decades to coalesce – that advocated the construction of alcohol plants to produce industrial alcohol from agricultural products to power internal combustion engines. At the same time, the plants would benefit farmers and the rural economy by creating an alternative to government programs that reduced acres or paid subsidies to farmers to not grow crops. Even as early as the 1940s, his idea drew strong opposition from the oil interests which considered ethyl alcohol a threat to the industry’s motor fuel monopoly.

He sold his interest in the plant in 1948 after he organized an engineering company and entered into a contract with the government of Argentina to develop two rivers for hydroelectric power and irrigation.

Engineering Work in Argentina

Johnson was originally approached by a representative of the Argentine government to assist with the development of an alcohol plant – for many of the same reasons Johnson had enunciated – in 1946. Joel Soler, commercial attaché for the Argentine ambassador had heard Johnson’s testimony about the importance of industrial and agricultural production to a country’s, and its people’s, well-being. By September, Johnson had prepared plans and specifications for an alcohol plant similar to that which was operating in Omaha. At the time he presented his plans, he spoke with several government representatives about the development of their natural resources, including the development of hydropower, before they would be in a position to construct large industrial manufacturing plants. Argentina at the time imported most of its fuel, including coal, oil and gasoline, which made it difficult to operate manufacturing plants to compete with the countries that were supplying its fuel.

The next year, Johnson met with the head of a purchasing commission for Argentina in New York. The official informed Johnson that the country was ready to proceed with a five-year program that included development of certain natural resources, including hydropower and storage for irrigation projects.

In April 1947, Johnson traveled to Buenos Aires to meet with representatives from the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and with President Juan Peron. At the close of these meetings, an offer was extended for Johnson to assemble a team of engineers and move to Mendoza, Argentina. He was told that they would be able to choose any location that they wished along the east side of the Andes Mountains for development of water resources. After examining the area for three days, he selected the Mendoza and San Juan Rivers.

Johnson returned to the United States, where he resigned his position with CNPPID and began making preparations to build dams and hydroplants in Argentina. Eventually he formed a company of about 90 employees – some of whom had worked with him to build CNPPID’s project – and they set about doing all of the preliminary work necessary to build dams, storage reservoirs and hydroplants.

In addition to that work, his employees began investigating the possibility of developing other natural resources. During those investigations, they found deposits of coal, silver, copper, bentonite, phosphorus and all of the elements necessary to create high-grade cement.

However, due to political and economic instability in Argentina beginning in 1950, Johnson found it necessary to sell his share in the company he had organized to local interests and to return to the United States.

Purchase of Private Power Companies in Nebraska: Formation of Public Power Districts

Johnson’s biographer wrote that the early days of public power in Nebraska “… required a man with vision, as well as electrical and civil engineering experience, resourcefulness, and the knack for getting things done. He had all of those qualities. The greatest passion in his life was to bring low-cost electric power and effective irrigation to the people of Nebraska.”

His work to promote and develop the “Tri-County Project” was an outlet for his energies and served him well later in the development of the Nebraska Public Power System.

Johnson played an important role in the purchase of Nebraska’s private power companies by the state’s public power districts between 1937 and 1946.

At first, the hydropower districts (Platte Valley, Loup and Central (or “Tri-County”)) tried to market their electricity to the private power companies, but the private companies refused to pay a price that that would even equal the cost of production. The private companies, which had little interest in serving rural areas because of the lack of profit potential, had tried to prevent the formation and operation of the public power districts and were averse to doing anything that would help the public power districts succeed. However, a few minor sales contracts were finalized during these initial phases in 1938.

For reasons associated with the bond market and interest rates, the Federal Works Agency suggested that the hydropower districts organize a separate district for the purchase of the private power companies. The Consumers Public Power District was created in 1939 as a result of this suggestion. The property of the private power companies was gradually purchased by Consumers and transferred by a lease-purchase agreement to the public hydropower districts.

The operating agreement among the three hydropower districts set up the operations of the transmission systems belonging to the districts into a grid system known as the Nebraska Public Power System. The manager of each hydropower district made up the board of managers for NPPS and Johnson was chairman of the board. The function of the board was to jointly operate the transmission system, the power plants that had been purchased from the private companies, construction of additional facilities, and to arrange for power sales.

Formation of Rural Electrification Administration (REA) Districts

The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 provided federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems to serve isolated rural areas of the United States. The funding was channeled through cooperative electric power companies, most of which still exist today. The Act created the Rural Electrification Administration which oversaw implementation of the Act.

Johnson and others began working on organization of REA districts in Nebraska as soon as the Act was passed. At the time, he was spending most of his time in Washington to secure approval of CNPPID’s project. He gathered post road maps from each county, and maps showing the location of existing power lines from the Nebraska Railway Commission. With this information, he began to study the best way to lay out electric and transmission service for Nebraska’s REA districts. In this manner, he designed transmission systems for several REAs, including the systems in Platte, Lancaster and Polk counties. He also helped organize districts in a 12-county area in south-central Nebraska.

In the end, the rapid development of the REA districts was of tremendous value to the hydropower districts as there was almost immediately sufficient demand for the generation from the hydroelectric plants to serve the many rural farmsteads and ranches that were being added to the electric grid. The rapid growth in demand for power – particularly in rural Nebraska – contradicted the claims by the private power companies that the state would never need the additional power being provided by the hydropower districts. The swift construction of transmission facilities to deliver the power to farms, ranches and small towns reinforced Johnson’s steadfast belief that electricity would greatly improve the quality of life for all Nebraskans.

Robert E. Firth wrote in his book, “Public Power in Nebraska,” “No man is more important in the history of public power in Nebraska than George E. Johnson.” Indeed, he was among the giants in public power in Nebraska at the time.

Canaday Steam Plant

Upon returning to the United States after his time in Argentina, Johnson renewed his association with CNPPID and was named the District’s chief engineer in 1952. He was appointed manager of the Steam Division in 1957, which was created in preparation for building and operating the Canaday Steam Plant.

In the mid-1950s, it had become apparent that Nebraska needed additional generating facilities. Studies started in 1955 to investigate the construction of the natural-gas fired power plant southeast of Lexington and adjacent to CNPPID’s Supply Canal. The site next to the Supply Canal’s source of cooling water and the proximity to existing powerlines (although several would need to be upgraded) and natural gas pipelines, as well as the underlying soils, were judged optimal for construction.

Johnson was placed in charge of designing and constructing the plant, as well as training the personnel to operate the plant after its completion. He supervised construction of the 100-megawatt plant which went on-line in May 1958 to help meet the state’s growing demand for electricity.

The plant, one of the largest in Nebraska at the time, was finished ahead of schedule and cost about $16 million, $1 million less than had been estimated. These savings were realized largely because Johnson decided that it would be best not to hire a “prime contractor” as was the typical practice. Instead, at the age of 71, Johnson decided that he would assume these duties. He was responsible for selecting and coordinating 32 contractors and 40 separate contracts.

Before construction had even begun, 26 of the state’s rural electric districts had signed contracts to buy power generated at the power plant, a significant development in convincing the Rural Electric Administration to loan money for the plant’s construction.

Other Activities

Johnson was also interested in the potential for modern means of transportation, including the automobile and the airplane. In 1909, he was one of the first businessmen in Nebraska to buy an automobile to make traveling quicker and easier (and in doing so came to the realization that the state’s roads were in dire need of improvement). He was pleased with the first automobile he purchased, a Chalmers four-cylinder vehicle, because of its reliability and considered it a vast improvement over the horse-and-buggy mode of transportation that was common at the time. As with most early automobile owners, he was his own mechanic and steadfastly refused to allow anyone else to work on his car.

He learned to fly in 1926. He took flying lessons in Lincoln and, after making his first solo flight, he purchased a Lincoln Standard bi-plane. Shortly thereafter, he bought the aviation school where he had trained to fly, the same school at which Charles Lindbergh had learned to fly. Over the years, he would own and fly several airplanes, the last of which was a Travelair with an enclosed cabin and a 200-horsepower Wright Whirlwind engine, the same engine that Lindbergh had in the “Spirit of St. Louis” plane used to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

Johnson became the first businessman in the state to regularly fly his own airplane for business purposes. As with his automobiles, he was always his own mechanic for the planes he used for business. No one else was allowed to tinker with his planes or their engines. In those early days, when there were few, if any, air fields near the places Johnson wished to travel for business, flying often meant landing where no airplane had previously landed, often in a farmer’s pasture.

The first airmail flight to Lincoln landed at his field, which was located on South 14th Street north of Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery. He also built the first hangar on the site that is now the Lincoln Airport.

Johnson also took an interest in radio. The radio age was in its infancy and, as with all things technological, the new field of radio-wave communication piqued his interest. He built the most advanced amateur radio station in Nebraska in 1920 with the latest equipment available, all personally purchased from a radio supply store in Chicago. He erected two towers, one 80 feet tall and the other 60 feet in high with an antenna between them. He conducted many experiments with radio in the ensuing years and it was from this station that Governor Samuel McKelvie made the first radio broadcast by a governor of the state. In 1922-23, weather and farm market reports were being broadcast from the station for the Nebraska State Department of Agriculture.


Besides being a member of the State Capitol Commission and the Federal Highway Advisory Board, Johnson was a member of a number of state and national electrical and civil engineering societies, the Society of American Military Engineers, the Nebraska State Water Conservation Congress, the International Board of Technical Engineers, and was a charter member of the Hastings Planning Commission. In 1961 the University of Nebraska Board of Regents presented Johnson with its highest non-academic honor for distinguished service – the Nebraska Builder Award – in recognition of his “conspicuously effective leadership in the fields of engineering and administration.”

Perhaps Johnson’s work in the engineering field is best summed up by comments he once wrote about natural resources and the people that depend on them. His comments summarized his convictions about the development of irrigation and public power projects in Nebraska:

“What happens to the land, the soil, the water and the minerals within the earth determines what happens to its people. It is upon these resources that men and nations must build. These are the foundations upon which our hopes and dreams for a future of prosperity and security are based.

“But everything depends upon how the job of developing such resources is done – whether it is for the welfare of all the people of the region or just for the financial benefit of a few individuals. The method followed determines whether these resources of the people will be exhausted and depleted by a few individuals seeking self-promotion or whether these resources are sustained, nourished, and made safe for the benefit of the present generation and of the generations to come. These natural resources are the heritage of all the people, and not the exclusive property of a few.”

Johnson applied these convictions to his work throughout his life, whether in neighboring states, on business travels to the eastern United States or in Argentina, but most of all, in Nebraska, his native land. In his biography, he said about the state:

“I have always loved Nebraska! It is a wide-open land with a big sky. It is a land where a strong man can use his muscles and stretch his brain. It is a land where a boy can dream the great American Dream and see it come true.

I have come to know it well. I have traveled it many times, border to border, by auto and airplane. I have farmed its soil and pioneered the use of surplus farm crops to make gasohol. I helped build its beautiful State Capitol building in Lincoln; and its highways, bridges, dams, canals and power plants.

Yes, Nebraska is a wonderful land of golden opportunities. Do you wonder why I love it so much?”

References/Sources of Information

Hamaker, Dr. Gene E. 1964. Irrigation Pioneers: A History of the Tri-County Project to 1935. Warp Publishing Company, Minden, Neb.

Johnson, George E., II. 1981. The Nebraskan. Anna Publishing, Inc., Winter Park, Fla.

Johnson, George E. 1967. Unpublished memoirs for The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District.

Conservation and Survey Division, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Flat Water: A History of Nebraska and Its Water. Resource Report No. 12. March 1993.

Firth, Robert E. 1962. Public Power in Nebraska: A Report on State Ownership. University of Nebraska Press.

1 2