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.

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.


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.


Vigilance Necessary to Protect Water Sustainability Fund

Vigilance Necessary to Protect Water Sustainability Fund

You can’t say it wasn’t expected.

A bill in the Nebraska Legislature this session sought to take money from the Water Sustainability Fund (WSF) for a purpose that was completely unrelated to the original intent and objectives of the WSF.

Thankfully, the bill did not pass, largely due to the efforts of a number of senators who opposed the measure.  However, it reminds those who are responsible for managing the state’s water resources to remain vigilant about such future attempts.

First, a little background.

Former State Senator Tom Carlson of Holdrege (Dist. 38) introduced a bill during the 2013 session that created the Water Funding Task Force.  The task force consisted of 34 members concerned with ensuring sustainable use of Nebraska’s water resources.  Original task force members represented virtually all of Nebraska’s water resources interests, from agriculture, utilities and municipalities to wildlife and recreation.

The task force’s objectives were ambitious in scope, but can be condensed into a few primary goals: make recommendations for developing water-funding legislation that would contribute to achieving sustainable use of water in Nebraska; identify potential sources of funding for programs, projects and activities; and develop a set of criteria by which potential projects would be evaluated and ranked according to how well they met the criteria.

The task force met more than 30 times between July and December 2013 at various sites across the state.  The product of these meetings was the establishment of a Water Sustainability Fund intended to assist projects (with a 40-percent match from the sponsor) that increased the available water supply, reduced water use, increased stream flows, improved water quality, provided flood control enhancements, ensured adequate water for agricultural, municipal and industrial uses, addressed wildlife needs, and improved recreational benefits.  The efforts culminated in the passage of LB1098 during the 2014 legislative session, which created the WSF and assigned its oversight to an expanded Natural Resources Commission.

The scoring criteria for the WSF developed by the task force was later refined by the Natural Resources Commission with focus on significant and expensive water issues that match the fund’s objectives.

The recent attempt in the Legislature was to reallocate funds from the WSF for use in establishing water supplies for community gardens.  Certainly a commendable purpose, but it failed to fit with any of the objectives identified for water sustainability funding.  Perhaps more importantly, passage of such a bill would have set a dangerous precedent, one that would have encouraged additional efforts to siphon funding from the WSF.

The WSF has seen in the past two years a reduction in its funding, as money is reallocated to help address the state’s budget shortfall.  That’s understandable; almost all state cash funds have been reduced.  Additional hands shaking the piggy bank in the future would diminish the state’s ability to achieve the WSF’s objectives.

Memories surface of how other state program funds have been tapped for purposes other than originally intended, based on the argument that “times have changed and so can funding appropriations.”  That may be true in some cases, but not for the WSF; its task remains the same.  Now entering its fourth grant cycle, the need to sustain and protect Nebraska’s water resources is as great as ever and it is the state as a whole that will benefit.

The next drought is always lurking around the corner.  When it inevitably arrives, the water sustainability improvements made possible by the WSF will prove their worth.  Nebraskans who value the original intent of the Water Sustainability Fund to fund programs and projects that help ensure the availability of water supplies for future generations should remain on guard and be thankful to those who worked so hard to establish a dedicated source of funding to enhance and protect Nebraska’s water resources.

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.

Planning Under Way for Water & Natural Resources Tour

Planning Under Way for Water & Natural Resources Tour

The date is still months away, but not too early to begin thinking about the annual Water and Natural Resources Tour organized by the Nebraska Water Center and The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District.

This year’s tour will take place on June 27-29. The destination will be Nebraska’s west-central Platte River Basin between Elm Creek and Lake McConaughy.

“This is a critical stretch of the Platte River that has many-faceted and far-reaching impacts on all Nebraskans,” said Steve Ress communicator for the Nebraska Water Center, which is part of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute. “It is tremendously important for agriculture, Nebraska’s economy, recreation, hydropower production, fish and wildlife habitat and many other interests.”

The Water and Natural Resources Tour began more than 40 years ago as an idea of then UNL Chancellor D.B. “Woody” Varner. What was originally an irrigation tour has evolved over the years into a broad investigation of many water and environmental topics relevant to Nebraska.

Tentative stops and topics on the tour include an organic farming operation; facilities related to Central’s hydro-irrigation project, including Kingsley Dam and Lake McConaughy; the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Water Interpretive Center at Lake McConaughy; projects underway by Platte Basin Natural Resources Districts; the Frito-Lay corn Handling Facility at Gothenburg and Monsanto’s Water Utilization Learning Center at Gothenburg; UNL’s West Central Research and Extension Center near North Platte for discussion of new cropping and irrigation technology research, a stop at a Platte River Recovery Implementation Program site; the Nebraska Public Power District’s Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland, and more. Planning is underway to end the tour with a kayak trip on a stretch of Central’s Supply Canal.

“Anyone who is interested in water resources, be they producers, researchers, or work in the water resources field, is welcome to attend,” said Central’s Public Relations Coordinator Jeff Buettner. “Our agenda will be packed with interesting topics and our goal is to present a broad overview of why this stretch of the Platte River is so important to Nebraska for many different reasons.”

Registration information for the tour will be announced soon. The latest tour information will be online at watercenter.unl.edu. Participation will be limited to the first 55 registrations.

Elevation & Flow Data: Technology is great … when it works

Elevation & Flow Data:  Technology is great … when it works

Technology is great … when it works the way it’s supposed to.

Case in point: visitors to Central’s “Reservoir/River Data” web page may have noticed “anomalies” in some of the graphs. In particular, the graph depicting recent inflows to Lake McConaughy shows a sudden spike; flows coming into the reservoir – according to the graph – jumped from around 1,200 cubic feet per second (cfs) to more than 7,500 cfs.

No, there wasn’t a cloudburst above Lake McConaughy and, no, there wasn’t a sudden release of large volumes of water from upstream reservoirs. The spike was caused by cold temperatures and ice in the North Platte River that interfered with gauging station equipment and the ability to accurately measure flows in the river.

Similarly, the elevation graph for Lake McConaughy shows a sudden and dramatic drop in the reservoir’s water level – almost 30 feet – that, we can assure you, did not actually happen. No, the dam didn’t break and there’s not a huge volume of water surging down the river.

Again, there was a problem with the data collection equipment that resulted in the generation of inaccurate graphs.

Now, you might think it’s a fairly simple matter to correct the data displayed on the graphs, but it’s more complicated than that because of the nature of how the graph is populated with data. In the past, all data was manually keyed into a spreadsheet and table. The data was used to create each graph which were then manually uploaded to the server for display on the web page. It was easy to recognize when “bad” data was reported, to confirm that the data was indeed “bad,” and to input correct data.

When the “Reservoir/River Data” page was automated earlier this year, the task the programmer faced was how to pull together data from multiple sources (gauges maintained by the U.S. Government Survey, the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, and Central’s own supervisory control and data acquisition system (SCADA)) into a cohesive form and then to code the information to automatically generate the graphs that appear on the web page.

However, the “bad” data is already recorded and stored in the data base that the automated system queries to populate the table and graphs on the web page. In some cases, since the data is not compiled by Central, it becomes difficult to change the source data (which is archived in the source data base) and requires manual override by Central personnel on a daily basis, a somewhat time-consuming task that was supposed to be unnecessary after automating the page.

So, the upshot is that we’re working on a way to resolve the issue that typically arises when winter weather conditions interfere with gauge function. Until a solution can be found, don’t get too excited by sudden sharp spikes – up or down – in the data reported in the table or that appears on the graphs. If something unusual does occur, rest assured that we’ll let you know.


Kingsley Hydro Inspection: Images from the Inside

Kingsley Hydro Inspection: Images from the Inside

The accompanying images reveal parts of the Kingsley Hydroplant that are seldom seen by anyone other than Central employees who perform regular inspections, maintenance and repairs at Nebraska’s largest hydropower plant.

Central’s engineers and maintenance crews take the plant off-line annually for regular inspection and maintenance of the facility’s mechanical and electrical components, but every five years the 19-feet-diameter penstock leading from the Control Tower in Lake McConaughy and the scroll case which routes the water through the turbine are de-watered for complete inspections.

Once the gates on the Outlet Tower and the huge guard valve within the hydroplant are closed, preventing water from Lake McConaughy from entering the plant, pumps removed water from the penstock so a two-man crew can paddle a small rubber boat up the penstock to the base of the Outlet Tower to perform the inspection. (In addition, Central personnel take a larger aluminum boat – with a motor — up the 28-feet-diameter penstock from the “Morning Glory” spillway to inspect the inside of that pipe.)

Being inside the huge scroll case, which is a spiral-shaped intake tube that routes water entering from the penstock through the wicket gates just above the turbine blades, is not a place for someone with claustrophobia. First, it’s pitch dark until portable lights are turned on to enable the inspection process. Second, one arrives (either immediately or eventually) at the realization that you are well below the bottom of Lake McConaughy and only several inches of steel separate you from almost 2 million acre-feet of water on the other side.

But for the men doing the inspections, it’s all in a day’s work.

The wicket gates that control the flow of water falling over the turbine blades. The gates move along a vertical axis.

The wicket gates that control the flow of water falling over the turbine blades. The gates move along a vertical axis.

View from below the turbine hub, with blades and closed wicket gates visible.

View from below the turbine hub, with blades and closed wicket gates visible.

Close-up view of one of the stainless steel turbine blades.

Close-up view of one of the stainless steel turbine blades.

The turbine hub with scaffolding erected to facilitate inspection and maintenance work.

The turbine hub with scaffolding erected to facilitate inspection and maintenance work.

The guard valve between the penstock and scroll case.  The valve is 19 feet in diameter.

The guard valve between the penstock and scroll case. Although it doesn’t appear very large in the photo, the valve is 19 feet in diameter.

2015-16 Water Year Ranks 7th for Inflows

2015-16 Water Year Ranks 7th for Inflows

So far it’s been a pretty good year … if you’re a Husker football fan or a fan of Lake McConaughy.

The Huskers recently re-entered the Top 10 rankings (according to the AP and Coaches polls) for the first time in several years and inflows into Lake McConaughy also cracked the top 10, finishing the water year (Oct. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016) at number seven.

The (unofficial) total of 1,665,983 acre-feet (a-f) was 344,000 more than last year (2014-15) and 961,000 a-f behind the all-time inflow record of more than 2.6 million a-f set during the 2010-11 water year.

Still, this year’s mark was well above the historic median of 1,029,110 a-f and the historic average inflow of 916,900 a-f. That’s good news for the water supply in Nebraska.

If you just look at the last 30 years as a measuring stick, the recently ended water year was the second highest during that period.

Interestingly, since 2009-10 Lake McConaughy has experienced four of the 12 highest inflow years on record. Conversely, since 2000-01, we’ve seen the six LOWEST inflow totals ever, as well as the 8th and 9th lowest inflow years.

So if you’re looking for a trend, it might be along the lines of “feast or famine” over the past 16 years.

What to expect during the new water year? It appears that we’ll have to wait and see.

The good news might be that the La Niña weather pattern that was expected to follow the recently ended El Nino cycle has seemingly failed to materialize. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, La Nina cycles are typically characterized by below normal precipitation in the Central Rockies and the Great Plains. If it’s not a factor this year, winter and spring weather – and particularly snowfall and spring rainfall – are a coin flip, with equal chances of above or normal precipitation during the first part of 2017.

Yep, we’ll just have to wait and see.

(Note:  The author is NOT a meteorologist, but does like to watch the weather forecasts on TV.)

1 2 3