All posts by Jeff Buettner

Water Year (2020-21) in Review

A summary of the 2020-21 water year (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30) makes one think of the old expression: “Is the glass half full or half empty?”

While much of the western United States suffered from a long-term drought (see the end-of-September drought map), Nebraska – and perhaps Lake McConaughy – fared a bit better.

If you’re in the “glass half empty” camp, inflows to Lake McConaughy during the water year (WY) amounted to just over 642,000 acre-feet (af), the 14th lowest WY total since Kingsley Dam was closed in 1941.  The historic median WY inflow is 928,964 af.

Typically, the months of October and November see the highest inflow totals to Lake McConaughy, but last year’s total for those two months amounted to only 79% of normal.  Spring (March-May) inflows were only 69% of normal.  As a result, the reservoir peaked on June 5 at elevation 3,250.9 feet, about 14 feet below capacity.  It reached its low elevation for the year in early September at 3,235.4 feet, a drawdown of 15.5 feet.

It should be noted that releases from the Environmental Account (a block of water managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to benefit wildlife habitat along the river) from mid-May through June contributed to the drawdown, as did releases for several irrigation canals along the North Platte and Platte Rivers operated by entities other than Central.

For those who subscribe to the “glass half full” attitude, despite the combined demands, releases during the water year were only 80% of the historic median and 90% of the 30-year median.  Also, much of the irrigated area served by Central benefitted from rainfall that was slightly above normal during the growing season, despite some stretches of hot, dry weather.

And the fact that the reservoir only declined by 15.5 feet given the scarcity of inflows – and little contribution from the South Platte River, water from which can be used to reduce releases from Lake McConaughy – is testament to the tremendous gains in producers’ on-farm irrigation efficiency, as well as efforts by Central to improve its conveyance system over the years.

With meteorologists predicting a second year of a La Niña weather pattern (a natural ocean-atmospheric condition marked by cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures across the central and eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator that impacts weather across the world), what does that mean for snowpack development in the Upper Platte Basin this fall and winter?

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, the central Rocky Mountains will likely see continued dry conditions this winter with equal chances of below-, near- or above average temperatures, while Nebraska’s winter has equal chances for below-, near- or above-average precipitation and temperatures.

In other words, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Central, Dawson Public Power enter into study of potential consolidation

Last November, The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District announced that it was in preliminary discussions with the Dawson Public Power District involving a potential consolidation or merger of the two entities.  In December, both organizations’ boards agreed to share the costs of retaining a consultant to conduct a study to determine whether a consolidation is an economic and strategic fit that benefits both entities, as well as their customers and stakeholders.

The study by Power Systems Engineering (PSE), headquartered in Madison, Wisc., will first determine whether the proposed merger makes economic and strategic sense, not only for the utilities, but for their customers and stakeholders.

If the answer is “yes,” PSE will move to the next phase of the study, which is a more detailed analysis of the financial components of a merger necessary to satisfy the boards of both entities, as well as requirements of any lenders and/or bond rating agencies.  In other words, is the potential consolidation in the economic best interests of each organization?

The consultant will assess elements of the Districts’ governance, finances, facilities, existing contracts, employees, state/federal government regulations and operations of the projects, as well as other categories or topics that may arise during the study.

If that phase of the study again produces positive results, the next step would consist of developing additional details related to the creation of a consolidation plan.  The culmination of such plan would likely be measured in years, not months, because of the complex nature of such a task.

Nevertheless, the managers of both Districts are optimistic and excited about the potential benefits of consolidation.

“We’ve received quite a bit of positive feedback regarding this proposal,” said Gwen Kautz, general manager of Dawson Public Power District.  “It’s reassuring that others outside of our organizations see what we see about the potential in the proposed consolidation.

“There are, of course, hurdles in front of us and we will remain transparent throughout the process.  The directors of both boards will be faced with the challenge of protecting the interests of those whom they represent while weighing the potential positive impacts this would produce for both Districts and for central Nebraska.”

“That won’t be easy,” Kautz continued, “but finding collaborative solutions on certain aspects of the proposal to achieve a greater good will be a critical part of the process.”

The hallmark of public power has long been affordability, reliability and sustainability.  And the word “public” in the name means just that:  the utilities exist to serve the public.

“I believe we owe nothing less to the people we serve than to investigate how we can do so better,” said Devin Brundage, Central’s general manager.  “If there is an opportunity to improve energy costs and reliability while enhancing and sustaining the incredible benefits the project provides to stakeholders, be they surface water irrigators, those who benefit from groundwater recharge, recreational enthusiasts, or the wildlife that thrive in and around our project waters, our mission as public power utilities compels us to look closely at that opportunity.”

Some 80 years ago, he said, these utilities stepped up to bring new possibilities and prosperity to the people of central Nebraska.

“The challenge before us is to look to the future and continue to step forward,” Brundage said.  “We can’t provide exceptional value to our stakeholders by standing still.”

Mergers or consolidations of electric utilities in Nebraska are not without precedent.  Recent examples include the consolidation in 1998 of the Wayne Public Power District and the Northeast Nebraska Rural Public Power District, producing the utility known today as Northeast Power.  Also, the Seward County Public Power District was merged into Norris Public Power District in 2016.

In a markedly different consolidation, the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) was formed in 1970 from the merger of the Platte Valley Public Power and Irrigation District, Consumers Public Power District, and the Nebraska Public Power System (NPPS).

Each of these mergers resulted in stronger, more efficient utilities that benefitted the electric customers.

The proposed Central/Dawson consolidation is intended to create the same type of benefits for customers and stakeholders.  While the two districts are functionally very different, they possess complementary strengths that can be amplified.

Central owns and operates hydroplants currently generating power for wholesale.  The emissions-free, renewable-fueled hydroplants on the Supply Canal could conceivably provide either base-load or peaking power to customers within the area.  In addition, Central is a member of — and could provide access to — the Southwest Power Pool, a regional transmission organization that ensures reliable supplies of power, adequate transmission infrastructure and competitive wholesale electricity prices to a large part of the nation’s mid-section.

Central also owns and operates a system of reservoirs and canals to provide irrigation service and provides recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat benefits over a large stretch of the Platte River Valley.

Dawson’s assets include an electrical distribution system that serves a retail customer base of about 24,000 electric meters, rate-setting responsibilities, a stable electrical load and a strong, modern distribution system over an area that covers all or parts of seven counties in south-central Nebraska.

And finally, both Districts possess professional, dedicated and experienced employees who are good at what they do.

Together, they would form a vertically integrated entity covering all levels of the supply chain — generation, transmission and distribution — that would allow for improved efficiencies and reduced costs.  The proposed integration of the two organization has the potential to create unique opportunities to serve the public in new ways and to position the new entity to partner in economic development in the service territory and across the state.


Legislature passes bill to allow directors to represent constituents on contract issues

A bill that would remove obstacles to better constituent representation by members of Central’s board of directors was passed by the Nebraska Legislature on Aug. 3 and signed into law by the governor.

Specifically, LB1055 would allow members of a public power and irrigation district’s board to represent the interests of their constituents when it comes to discussing and providing input on matters related to standard form water service agreements and lot leases at District-owned property near Johnson Lake and Lake McConaughy, if a board member also holds such an agreement with Central.

Sen. Matt Williams (Dist. 36, Gothenburg) introduced LB1136 which contained the necessary changes to the Accountability and Disclosure Act.

The bill was amended into LB1055, which was introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer (Dist. 43, Gordon), that changes provisions regarding elections and the Nebraska Political Accountability and Disclosure Act. Three other bills were also amended into LB1055 and the bill was designated as one of two priority bills by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, of which Sen. Brewer is the chairman.

Central’s board members are now allowed to have an interest in a con-tract with the district. They will still be required to disclose a potential conflict of interest to the Accountability and Disclosure Commission and abstain from voting on the agreements in question.

Board members will, however, be free to discuss and provide input to their fellow board members about said agreements, thus allowing them to more properly represent constituents who elected them to the board.

The bill also repeals another section of law to eliminate the prohibition against a member of certain boards from having an interest in a con-tract with the governmental entity. This is an unusual provision rooted in events which took place more than 80 years ago during the formation and construction of public power and irrigation districts.

Finally, the bill eliminates the previous possibility that board members with lease agreements or water service agreements could be removed from the board if they are party to certain contracts.

Central and its constituents would like to thank Sens. Williams and Brewer for their efforts to secure passage of LB1055/LB1136 and members of the Legislature who voted in favor of the bill.


Bill to Permit Board Members to Better Represent Constituents in 2020 Session

Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg (Dist. 36 of the Nebraska Legislature) introduced LB1136 during the 2020 Legislative session on behalf of The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District.

LB1136 is a bill to prescribe when an interest in a contract is prohibited and eliminate a prohibition against such interest by a public power and irrigation district board member.  More to the point, the bill will permit members of a public power and irrigation district’s board to represent the interests of their constituents when it comes to discussing and providing input on matters related to standard form water service agreements and lot leases at District-owned property near Johnson Lake and Lake McConaughy.

To better understand the bill’s intent, background on the issue is necessary.

About two years ago, during the process of discussing the terms of lot leases for homes/cabins at lakes owned by Central, an inquiry was made by a third party as to whether or not two members of Central’s board of directors who own homes at Johnson Lake could participate in discussions about the leases, and vote in favor of, or against, the final lease agreement.

The two members of the board with leases at the lake did participate in discussions about the lease proposal – after all, they were elected to their positions largely because of the fact that they owned homes at the lake and would faithfully represent their constituents’ best interests, as well as those of the District – but they abstained from voting on the final long-term lease.  As advised, they also sent letters to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission (NADC) detailing their potential conflict of interest in the matter.

As the issue evolved, the ability of other members of the board who are irrigation customers to discuss and vote upon annual irrigation delivery rates was also called into question.  Central sought an advisory opinion from the NADC which concluded that board members “… who have present or prospective water service agreements with the District may not participate in discussions and voting on standard form water service agreements.”

Again, the members were elected by their constituents precisely because they are irrigation customers and, as such, understand the issues related to the District’s irrigation operations.  In short, they were elected to represent their constituents’ best interests.

The prohibition of voting on – or even discussing matters related to lot lease agreements or water service agreements — seems on its face to disenfranchise the very voters who elected the board members to their positions.  Further, constraints on the ability of individuals from voting on, or discussing, matters related to leases and/or water service agreements places an obstacle to attracting potential board members in the future.

Central understands the NADC’s position; its members followed the letter of the law to interpret the current statute.  However, Central does not believe the intent of the statute was to absolutely prohibit irrigation customers or lease holders from serving on Central’s board, or discussing and voting upon standard form agreements.  Indeed, Central has for almost 80 years had board members who were irrigation customers and, since the more recent implementation of lake lot leases, board members who are cabin-owners at District lakes.  Their ability to bring that knowledge and perspective to the board has proven invaluable over the years in discussions that pertain to those leases and/or water service agreements.

The bill would have the following effects:

First, the bill amends a section in the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Act so that it also applies to entities formed under Chapter 70, which contains statutes related to the formation and operation of public power utilities.  Members of Central’s board could have an interest in a contract with the district.  They would still be required to disclose a potential conflict of interest to the NADC and abstain from voting on the agreements in question.  They would, however, be free to discuss and provide input to their fellow board members about said agreements, thus allowing them to more properly represent constituents who elected them to the board.

Second, the bill repeals a portion of statute to eliminate the prohibition against a member of certain boards from having an interest in a contract with the governmental entity.  This is an unusual provision rooted in events which took place more than 80 years ago.  It would also eliminate the current possibility that board members with lease agreements or water service agreements could be removed from the board.

The bill will have no effect on irrigation districts formed under Chapter 46 where, in most cases, only those individuals who are irrigation customers and/or landowners are able to vote for candidates for boards of directors or serve on those irrigation districts’ board of directors.

LB1136 had the support of the NADC at the bill’s hearing in February.  Greg Heiden and DeDe Peterson, representing irrigation customers and cabin-owner, respectively, also testified in support of the bill, which was unanimously voted out of committee for floor debate.  It was subsequently amended into LB1055 as part of a package of bills prioritized by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.  LB1055 was placed on select file without opposition on March 9 and was scheduled for advancement to final reading when the Legislature took an extended recess on March 16 because of COVID-19 virus concerns.  The bill’s priority status will, hopefully, lead to its appearance on the Legislature’s agenda when the Unicameral reconvenes on July 20.

Central extends its thanks to Sen. Williams for sponsoring the bill and to Sen. Brewer and his committee for including it in a package of bills with a priority designation.

Extension of Platte River Program Good News for Nebraska

The news last week that the Secretary of the Interior had signed an amendment to extend the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program Cooperative Agreement through Dec. 31, 2032 made for a great end to 2019 and a good start to the New Year.

The House of Representatives and the Senate passed legislation to extend the Program on Dec. 19 and it was signed by President Trump on Dec. 20.  Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt’s signature on the amendment officially committed federal resources to the Program in which the states of Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming are partnering with the federal government to support and protect habitat for four threatened and endangered species (the whooping crane, piping plover, interior least tern and pallid sturgeon) along the Platte River.

In remarks after the signing, the governors and Congressional delegations from all three states hailed the partnership and the progress the Platte River Program has made over the past 13 years.  The Program provides for Endangered Species Act compliance for new and existing water-related projects in the Platte River Basin, including those operated by The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, the Nebraska Public Power District, and federal projects in Colorado and Wyoming, as well as a myriad of other water projects (basically any project or activity with an established a federal nexus that might include diversions from the river or pumping groundwater that is hydrologically connected to the river).

The Program began in 2007, but the path to its implementation can be traced even further back to the early 1990s and efforts by Central to secure a renewed license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to operate their hydroelectric facilities.

The FERC issued its first Draft Environmental Impact Statement related to project operations in early 1992, but the Environmental Protection Agency recommended that a new DEIS be prepared because the original document failed to “adequately assess the potentially significant environmental effect, nor does it identify and analyze all reasonable alternatives.”

Subsequently, Nebraska parties to the relicensing process, with the leadership of Governor Ben Nelson, developed a relicensing plan centered around a “block-of-water” concept or “environmental account.”  This plan would replace the rigid river flow proposals in the FERC’s DEIS with a more flexible plan which would set aside a block of water in Lake McConaughy for wildlife habitat purposes.  An environmental account manager (originally the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, but later designated to be a representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) would determine when and how much water to release from the environmental account for wildlife purposes.

Governor Nelson’s suggestion became known as the “Nebraska Plan;” it was endorsed by several entities, including the Nebraska Water Users, the Big Mac Sportsmen’s Club and NPPD.

In March 1994, the FERC released its revised DEIS concluding that a modified Nebraska Plan “offers the best overall balance among the resource values, while providing adequate protection for threatened and endangered species.”  However, Central and other Nebraska parties were deeply concerned by the costs associated with mitigation and enhancements required by the revised DEIS, as well as the fact that Nebraska would bear a disproportionate responsibility for mitigating depletions to stream flows.

In June 1994, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the U.S. Department of the Interior to develop a basin-wide solution that included sharing responsibility for protecting endangered species along the Platte River.

In late 1996, the USFWS issued a draft biological opinion of the FERC’s biological assessment that found jeopardy for endangered species; the agency recommended two “reasonable and prudent” alternatives for resolving ESA issues.  One alternative gave consideration to an agreement between the three states and Interior.  The other would have forced Nebraska’s power districts to shoulder a disproportionately large share of the burden for providing water and habitat for endangered species.

A year later, the states and Interior reached an agreement on a basin-wide plan for endangered species.  A Cooperative Agreement that laid out the approach to providing money, land and water to meet endangered species’ habitat needs was subsequently signed in July.

In January 1998, the parties involved in negotiations over federal license conditions announced that a settlement had had been reached that covered all fish and wildlife-related issues connected with the relicensing of the hydroelectric facilities.  The Cooperative Agreement between the three states and the federal government was an important part of the settlement reached by Central, NPPD, the Whooping Crane Trust, National Audubon Society, Nebraska Water Users, the states of Colorado and Wyoming and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The FERC approved the relicensing settlement agreement in July 1998 and issued a new 40-year license to Central and NPPD.  The settlement was an important part of comprehensive water resource management and endangered species habitat protection in the Platte River basin.  The new license is part of an integrated approach to managing water in the Platte basin that provides regulatory certainty and allows adaptive management in response to new information about issues involved in the relicensing and water resources management process.

The FWS and Bureau released a final draft environmental impact statement (FEIS) in May 2006 and a month later the FWS’ biological opinion stated that the Program would not cause jeopardy to the target species.  The opinion cleared the way to begin implementation of the Program in on Jan. 1, 2007 after governors of the three states signed documents committing their respective states to the Program.

The Platte River Program has made significant strides toward its goal of learning about the most effective methods of protecting and enhancing habitat for the affected species over the past 13 years, including objectives related to providing land and water and the use of an adaptive management approach to implement and evaluate the effects of measures designed to improve riverine habitat.  The extension to the original agreement provides the time and resources for the Program to reach its goals, while allowing the three states and the Department of the Interior to avoid lengthy and expensive litigation over Endangered Species Act issues.

Central and its stakeholders are grateful to all of the individuals and organizations who have made the Program extension possible and look forward to continuing the highly successful partnerships with the many entities involved in the Program.

Review of ‘Unusual’ 2018-19 Water Year

To say it has been an unusual year is perhaps an understatement.

The 2018-19 water year ended on Sept. 30 (a water year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 of the next year) and it was a year marked by heavy and frequent rain storms, floods, planting delays, bone-chilling winter temperatures, and even “bomb cyclones,” among other anomalies in terms of weather and water.

While this part of Nebraska was largely spared from the calamities that befell other parts of the state (except for the deluge that caused flooding along Turkey Creek in Kearney and the Wood River flooding that struck several other central Nebraska towns), it has also been an unusual year for the water supply at Lake McConaughy.  While total water year inflows were above average, the 1.19 million acre-feet barely cracked the Top 20, finishing at 19th highest in the reservoir’s history.  (An acre-foot is the volume of water that would cover one acre with 12 inches.)

But it was the inflows during the summer months that made the water year unusual.  Normally inflows are highest in October and then in May and early June.  In fact, from October of last year through May, inflows were pretty much in line with the normal monthly averages.

Then came summer.  Inflows to Lake McConaughy during June were twice the normal amount; more than two and a half times normal in July; and 348 percent of normal in August.  In fact, the 162,843 acre-feet (a-f) that flowed into Lake McConaughy in August was the highest monthly total for the year.  Historically, as one would expect in a snowmelt-fed basin, inflows during August are near the low point for the year, trailing only July (median inflows of 46,815 a-f in August and 45,718 a-f in July).

Several factors converged to yield this outcome.  First, mountain snowpack in Colorado and Wyoming was above average in all three basins – the upper and lower North Platte River and the South Platte River – that affect river flows into Nebraska.  The subsequent runoff, particularly in the North Platte Basin in which Lake McConaughy is located, entered U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) reservoirs in Wyoming that were already holding plentiful supplies of carryover storage from the last year.

Second, frequent precipitation across much of the Platte Valley suppressed demand for irrigation.  Rainfall during the growing season (April through September) collected in Central’s Holdrege gauge totaled 25.44 inches, compared with the 20-year average of 18.63 inches and 19.0 inches since 1957.

However, the frequency of precipitation perhaps played a more significant part in reducing irrigation demand than the amount of rainfall.  Few weeks went by this summer without some amount of rain, which was often enough to dissuade an irrigator from starting his pivot or opening the gates on his pipe.

And finally, a mid-July tunnel collapse on an irrigation canal that delivers water to the Goshen Irrigation District in Wyoming and the Gering-Ft. Laramie Canal in Nebraska’s Panhandle, prevented delivery of water to about 107,000 acres in the two states.  With abundant water already in storage and the approaching need to make room for next year’s inflows, releases from the USBR reservoirs that normally would been diverted into the two canals continued downstream to Lake McConaughy.

Lake McConaughy’s lowest elevation (3,252.5 feet above sea level) during the 2018-19 water year actually occurred on Oct. 1, 2018, the first day of the water year.  The reservoir’s peak elevation occurred on July 15 at 3,260.1 feet, declining to elevation 3,257.9 in mid-August and currently stands near elevation 3,259.0, about six feet below full elevation.

And here’s an interesting observation:  Lake McConaughy’s elevation of 3,258.7 feet on Aug. 31 was the same as it was on Aug. 1.  A check back through the data reveals that that has never happened in the reservoir’s 79 years.  While August’s inflows were well short of a record amount, the monthly total did rank fifth behind 2010, 1973, 2011 and the record of more than 328,000 a-f in 1983.

So if you’ve noticed quite a bit more water flowing down the Platte River this summer, that’s the explanation.  A lot of water going into Lake McConaughy, and once it was released, not much demand for it to be diverted into the many irrigation canals along the central Platte.

With long-range forecasts calling for a cold and wet winter, one wonders what Mother Nature has in store for Nebraska in the new water year.


2019 Legislative Session in Review

Much was written and spoken about what the Nebraska Legislature did and did not accomplish during the 2019 session, which adjourned on May 31.

Tax reform and efforts to substantially lower property taxes were at the top of the list of “things to do” next session, as efforts in the Legislature to reach agreement came up short.  Legislation to enact new business tax incentives (to replace the Nebraska Advantage Act, which expires at the end of 2020) became entangled with property tax relief last session and a solution that would satisfy enough senators for either to pass proved elusive.

However, it’s not my intent to add to the debate over taxes or business incentives; instead I’ll use this space to discuss a number of bills pertaining to water and natural resources that were either passed with little fanfare, or (appropriately and thankfully, in our opinion) failed to advance.

The bills were not as controversial, but the lack of controversy does not diminish their importance to those who will be –or won’t be – affected.

LB48, introduced by Sen. John Stinner of Scottsbluff, changes provisions related to a finding of sufficient cause for non-use of a water appropriation.  The new statute, which passed final reading 43-0 and was signed into law by Gov. Ricketts, allows contracts under any crop reserve program to be extended to 30 years by providing for sufficient cause for nonuse of water rights.  In other words, acres enrolled in such federal, state or Natural Resources District programs can maintain their water right without threat of cancellation for non-use.

For instance, the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is designed to reduce the amount of water consumption from irrigation activity as well as the introduction of agricultural chemicals and sediment entering the waters of the state from agricultural lands and transportation corridors.  Enrollees in CREP are protected from losing their water appropriations for a longer period than was provided under current state law.

LB294 and LB298 were both budget bills; both contained provisions that were in the governor’s original proposal that the Legislature left intact.  After a few years of seeing reductions in the mainline budget bill, the Water Sustainability Fund contained within LB294 will receive its full allotment of $11 million during the next biennium, enabling the Natural Resources Committee and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to continue to build upon the successes they’ve had with various projects intended to enhance the state’s ability to achieve sustainability of our water resources.

And in LB298, the ability for DNR to receive grants from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund was continued, which is an important component of DNR’s efforts to fund water projects in the state.

LB302, introduced by Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, proposed to merge the State Energy Office with the Department of Environmental Quality and rename the agency the Department of Environment and Energy.  The bill passed final reading on a 45-0 vote and was signed with an emergency clause (meaning it takes effect immediately) by Gov. Ricketts.

Mostly intended as an efficiency measure, one important aspect of the merger, at least to those in the water resources field, was authorization the agency to assume responsibility for the “dredge-and-fill” permitting process, pending agreement between the federal government and the state.  This development has the potential to speed the permitting process and allow projects to proceed more quickly without sacrificing environmental quality.

A couple bills that failed to advance from their respective committees included LB368, which would have legislatively eliminated the “over-appropriated” designation of river basins, sub-basins and reaches and require the DNR to manage dams in Nebraska as flood control structures, effectively preventing them from filling past 80 percent before a certain date.

Sen. Hughes, in his opening at the hearing on the bill, explained that he introduced the bill to provide the Natural Resources Committee, of which he is chairman, with information about why water is managed as it is today and to help the committee members better understand what the fully and over-appropriated designation means.  He also intended the bill to serve as an opportunity for education, background and context to discussion of water legislation.

He closed his testimony by saying that the hearing was a “… good exercise for the committee to understand the challenges that we have in Nebraska, but there’s been a lot of work in this committee before we ever got here.  Any changes that (the Legislature) makes in water policy should be taken very slowly, very deliberately, and very cautiously.”

And last, LB655 was introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne to change provisions of Nebraska’s fencing laws.  The bill, which received little or no support in the Agriculture Committee hearing, would have turned the state’s fencing statutes upside down by eliminating the practice of sharing financial responsibility for construction and maintenance of division fences currently found in statute.


Spring has sprung (hasn’t it?), and water’s flowing downhill

Spring has sprung (hasn’t it?), and water’s flowing downhill

During Central’s April board meeting, Hydraulic Project Operations Manager Cory Steinke engaged board members and everyone else at the meeting in an exercise to illustrate the complexity and difficulty of managing water supplies.

Each participant was given a stack of pennies that represented the existing – and future – water supply in storage at Lake McConaughy.

The point of the exercise was to complete a four-year cycle of inflows and releases without 1) running out of pennies (water); and 2) leaving insufficient space for additional pennies (inflows) resulting in a “spill” of valuable water.  (A “spill” is a release of excess water from a reservoir.)

During the exercise, Steinke was repeatedly asked for more information pertaining to various snowpack conditions, irrigation demand, upstream storage reservoir conditions, weather forecasts, etc.  But a crystal ball was not part of the game, just as water managers usually cannot see clearly very far into the future.  They must rely on the best available information – both short-term and long-term – on which to base their decisions and even the best, most recent information, can be subject to rapid change.

Operational projections begin with known quantities of water in storage at the beginning and end of any particular cycle.  Despite having access to the latest forecasts, any unexpected changes to any of the numerous factors that influence water management operations could leave the participants “penniless,” or at the other end of the spectrum, having too many pennies in the bank.

One need look no further than the recent events afflicting eastern and northeastern Nebraska and western Iowa.  The flood damages were the result of a series of unlikely events occurring simultaneously, creating a scenario that overwhelmed manmade dikes, dams and operational plans and caused creeks and rivers to swell out of their banks.

A coincidence of “unlikely events” is not the same as “impossible events;” even planning that prepared for “unlikely events” and “maximum probable floods” was overcome by the capriciousness of weather and Nature’s unrelenting power.

While flooding along the Platte River did not occur in central and western Nebraska, spring is the time of year when water managers keep particularly close watch on conditions in the upper Platte River basin.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages a series of reservoirs on the North Platte River in Wyoming and monitors snowpack/snowmelt conditions in the North Platte and South Platte drainage basins, recently released its projections for runoff.

The April forecasts indicate the spring snowmelt runoff will be above average.  Total April through July runoff in the North Platte River Basin above Glendo Dam in Wyoming is expected to be 1,005,000 acre-feet (a-f) which is 111% of the 30-year average.

As of March 31, storage content in the North Platte Reservoirs was 1.8 million a-f, which is 110% of the 30-year average.  The total conservation storage capacity of the North Platte Reservoir System is approximately 2.8 million a-f.  At this time, the Bureau is not anticipating a spill of water from Pathfinder Reservoir.

In the South Platte River basin, snowpack conditions are currently at, or slightly above, normal for early April.

Prior to the projections, Central had noticed the increasing snowpack and began making adjustments to water operations to leave space in Lake McConaughy for any extra water released from the upstream reservoirs.

However, the South Platte River remains, as always, a wildcard.  With only minimal amount of off-stream storage capability in Colorado, the South Platte remains susceptible to rapid snowmelt runoff and heavy spring rains that could cause high-water events in western and central Nebraska after it joins with the North Platte River east of the City of North Platte.

Central will continue to monitor developments in the North and South Platte River basins this spring and is tailoring operations to developing conditions, including precipitation forecasts for April and May that call for increased chances for above normal precipitation throughout most of the Platte River Basin.  Lake McConaughy has no designated flood pool (an amount of space in a reservoir designed for flood control used to regulate floodwaters), other than gradually rising restrictions on maximum elevation during the spring, but the reservoir has been operated during high-flow periods when necessary to mitigate downstream flooding that is often the result of high South Platte River flows.

But as demonstrated by recent events, Mother Nature sometimes has plans of her own that overwhelm human efforts to manage our rivers and streams.


Fund drive launched for water education in honor of Tim Anderson

At the 2018 Nebraska State Irrigation Association/Nebraska Water Resources Association joint annual convention, NSIA leaders launched the Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project, a fund drive to solicit contribution in an effort to advance water education and sustainability in Nebraska.

Former Governor and U.S. Senator Ben Nelson was on hand at a luncheon to introduce the effort and spoke glowingly of Anderson’s efforts to raise awareness about water issues in Nebraska and advocate for cooperative, common sense solutions to disputes over water, rather than resorting to litigation or a win/lose approach to water issues.

Below is the text of a letter from Nelson which is among the outreach tools from the NSIA committee that is coordinating the fundraising effort to create an endowment aimed at bringing Nebraskans together on water issues.

Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project

Carrying that Pail Together:  A Letter from former Nebraska Governor and U.S. Senator Benjamin Nelson

Dear Friend,

I am pleased to announce the creation of the Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project.  I was first approached by the Nebraska State Irrigation Association in January to discuss the idea of developing a special memorial in honor of long-time natural resources advocate Tim Anderson.  Tim Anderson was a very good friend of mine who mentored me and took me under his wing.  Tim faithfully informed me of our state’s difficult water issues while I had the distinct honor of serving as Nebraska’s Governor and Senator.  Tim passed away in October of 2017 after a passionate career centered around Nebraska’s water resources.

To honor his memory, I would like to share a story about Tim with you as well.  Tim would often sit on his dock at his cabin watching the sunset over Plum Creek Canyon Lake on a supply canal west of Johnson Lake.  He would hum the bars of one of his favorite songs, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” by Otis Redding on those warm summer evenings:

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun,

I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes.

Watchin’ the ships roll in,

Then I watch ‘em roll away again.

He would envision those ships coming and going, docking, unloading and loading up again, then steaming off to another port.  Throughout his career, Tim looked upon people as coming and going, unloading information and gathering information and then taking these bits and pieces of information and ideas to other destinations.  His goal was to bring together this continuum of thoughts and concerns and engage people to have meaningful conversations.  Tim believed that if folks could sit down together and discuss water concerns and ideas with equal passion that those around the table might realize that they have more in common rather than a barn full of differences.  It was his definition of “water collegiality,” where an inclusive vision of Nebraska’s shared water future was attainable through productive discourse and functional compromise.  By no coincidence, this song was played at his funeral.

The Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project can achieve such objectives as:

  • Supporting the Nebraska Water Leaders Academy – The Academy provides learning opportunities that focus on cooperative approaches to solving Nebraska’s water issues.
  • Creating Water Resources Partnerships – Hosting “think tank” sessions with water leaders around Nebraska.

Through your donation to the Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project, you will be directly impacting Nebraska’s shared water future by creating a greater understanding of Nebraska’s water heritage.  You will essentially be building a “house of water sustainability” whereby collegiality is the foundation.  Discourse becomes the load-bearing walls.  Education frames the windows and doors of creativity.  Compromise and understanding become the roof under which conservation is blanketed.  The value of this house is a direct reflection of your generosity.

As you know, Nebraska is blessed with a wonderful bounty of water, but it is imperative to keep our water plentiful and clean.  Your gift will be aiding the promotion of water collegiality, developing water leaders, and ensuring that Tim’s seminal message of how blessed we are to have this water heritage lives onward.  He carried his virtue for water sustainability like a pail full of water.

Nebraska is one of the few places in the world fortunate enough to have this water resource.  Tim spent time sittin’ on his own dock surrounded by this gift of water and I want to thank you for considering a gift to the Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project.


/s/ Ben Nelson

The Honorable Benjamin Nelson

Nebraska Governor and United States Senator

For more information about contributing to the fund, you can call Lee Orton at (402) 476-0162, or print the form below and mail it to:

Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project

c/o Water Futures Partnership-Nebraska, Inc.

1233 Lincoln Mall, Ste. #201

Lincoln, NE  68508

Contribution amount (Please make checks payable to the Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project):
$1,000 __$500 __$300 __$250 __$100 __$50 __$25 __Other __
CityStateZip Code
Mastercard __Visa __Discover __Credit Card No.Exp. Date:___/___
___ Please call me at the phone number that I provided.  I would like to discuss donating real property in the form of items, collections, and/or land.
*We do not trade, rent, sell or share the names, addresses or e-mails of our donors.  Your contribution is tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law.

Recap: 2018 Irrigation Season (or lack thereof?)

Recap:  2018 Irrigation Season (or lack thereof?)

Harvest is upon us and another irrigation season – such as it was in our neck of the woods – is over, so a recap of the recently concluded water year from Central’s perspective is in order.  (Note: A “water year” runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 of the following year.)

It was somewhat of an unusual summer, at least in south-central Nebraska.  Conditions and experiences in other parts of Nebraska, being a state of much variability, may have differed considerably.  But by most accounts, irrigation demand was relatively low this summer, whether the water was delivered from a canal system or pumped from a well.

The post-season data shows that deliveries from Central’s system were well below normal.  That’s probably a good thing because, after three consecutive years in which inflows to Lake McConaughy exceeded 1 million acre-feet (a-f), the 2017-18 water year failed to reach that level, amounting to just under 900,000 a-f.  This comes on the heels of two consecutive years of below average snowmelt runoff that feeds the North Platte River.

Under different circumstances this might be cause for concern about the reservoir’s storage conditions, but not so much this year.  While there are many factors in play, reduced irrigation demand across much of the Platte Valley helped keep water in Lake McConaughy.

As a reminder to readers, water from Lake McConaughy is released not only for Central’s irrigation customers, but for diversion by many other canals in the Platte Valley.

At first glance, reduced irrigation demand could be attributed to abundant rainfall and temperatures that, by and large, stayed below scorching levels.  While temperatures rarely climbed above the low 90s, precipitation – at least in Central’s area – didn’t depart that much from normal this summer, although seldom a week went by without some precipitation.  Perhaps more so than the amount, the timeliness and effectiveness of rainfall helped reduce irrigation demand.

Rain gauges in the area accumulated various amounts of precipitation during the growing season (April-September), with average for that period in parentheses:  21.81” north of Elwood (17.28”); 23.26” in the Bertrand area (17.55”); 20.14” inches north of Holdrege (20.36”); and 17.67” inches north of Minden 19.81”).  Keep in mind that these totals include rainfall in September – which was fairly wet — when crop water use was low.

While it might have seemed wet, we didn’t see a dramatic departure from the norm this year.

Lake McConaughy reached its peak elevation on June 11 at 3257.0 feet above mean sea level.  It’s low elevation for the year was reached on Sept. 9 at 3252.4 feet.  That decline – 4.6 feet – is among the lowest irrigation-season declines on record.

While that small of a decline is unusual – the reservoir typically drops between 10 and 15 feet during a “normal” irrigation season – there have been summers when the lake actually gained elevation due to a variety of factors (high inflows, plentiful rainfall, high South Platte River flows which reduced the need for releases from Lake McConaughy, and the summer of ’93 when widespread hail storms and late crop freezes and 40 inches of rain significantly impacted demand for irrigation water in south-central Nebraska).

In fact, perusal of the data revealed that Lake McConaughy gained elevation during irrigation season on seven occasions:  1947, 1962, 1965, 1993, 1999, 2010 and 2015.  And in 1958 the lake was at the same elevation at the end of September as it was on the first of May.

In summary, Lake McConaughy weathered the summer of 2018 quite well and storage conditions are good.  Upstream reservoirs in Wyoming are also in fairly good shape entering the fall and winter.  But it sure would be nice to see some snowfall on those mountains by next April.


1 2 3 4 5 6