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Finding a balance for Nebraska water

The big picture of Nebraska’s water supply is missing as the state attempts to manage water conflicts and set regulatory policies. Instead, Nebraska needs to inventory its total water supply and identify where that water goes before determining the highest-priority consumptive uses.

That’s the premise behind Nebraska’s newest water organization — the Nebraska Water Balance Alliance. Nebraska’s rural electric utilities, irrigation interests primarily from the western part of the state, and others formed the NEWBA last fall and continue to inform Nebraskans about its objectives.

Roric Paulman, a Sutherland farmer, irrigator and adopter of many of the latest equipment and crop technologies, is the group’s vice president. He believes the state lacks a long-term water planning process.

At a glance

New group seeks to be a voice in Nebraska’s water policy.

Nebraska’s total water supply should be considered, alliance says.

Reducing low-priority consumptive uses is one goal.


“The Nebraska Department of Natural Resources and the state’s natural resources districts must be focused on complying with today’s legislative requirements for surface and groundwater, but the broader perspective of enhancing our water supply long-term is missing. NEWBA wants to bring everyone together to address long-term opportunities as part of a state water budgeting concept.”

Frank Kwapnioski, formerly with Nebraska Public Power District and now an NEWBA consultant, says, “We can’t focus on irrigation as the sole problem and the sole solution. A complete water balance system is vital to understand water use before we try to manage it.”

The alliance is not an attempt to avoid regulations, the group’s members say. “We fully understand the need for compliance and regulation, but we need better answers to move forward,” he says.

Kwapnioski uses the following numbers to make NEWBA’s case:

About 93 million acre-feet of water, on average, comes annually in the form of precipitation, rain and snow.

About 2 million acre-feet of water, on average, arrives annually as surface water from other states, to create an annual water supply of 95 million-acre feet.

About 8 million to 9 million acre-feet of water leave the state as surface water outflow, leaving about 80 million to 85 million acre-feet that is consumed within Nebraska.

Only about 16% to 17% — 8 million acres — of the total land area in Nebraska is irrigated. Supplemental irrigation consumes only 5% to 10% of the 83 million to 87 million acre-feet of consumption.

More than 80% of the state’s overall water supply is consumed through evaporation and transpiration from dryland crops, grasses, trees and invasive species, as well as streamflow out of the state, he says.

These numbers are averages, he adds, and don’t consider the huge precipitation variability from year to year and geographically across the state, and this water supply variability should be managed.

For instance, Kwapnioski says that flooding is possible along the Platte River system this spring with Rocky Mountain snowpack 130% of normal, which already has necessitated early releases from an already-full Lake McConaughy.

A water balance approach, he says, rests on three legs:

Inventory and understand the water system. “If we don’t know how it works, how can we sustain it?” he asks.

Identify the least beneficial consumptive uses and, if necessary, switch those uses to higher priorities.

Provide conjunctive management that recognizes surface and groundwater coexist and that one can be used to supplement the other.

In the case of curtailing evaporation, no-till and reduced tillage can save roughly 2 inches per acre, which would total 1.3 acre-feet over 8 million acres of irrigated agriculture and result in additional recharge to the aquifer.

Sustaining the state and local economies is another priority for NEWBA.

“We can continue to eliminate irrigated acres [through mitigation and buyout pro-grams], but that may cause economic harm to the individual, the community and state, and likely will have little effect on streamflow,” Kwapnioski says. “Changing the farmland of the Republican Basin to highly efficient dryland crops with improved water management techniques could lead to reductions in streamflow to Kansas.”

Water management opportunities

The water balance alliance has not outlined specific management practices but offers some general suggestions:

off-stream storage to capture water in times of excessive streamflows, plus use of existing surface-water systems to hold excessive streamflows

reducing evaporation in the 1.5 billion to 2 billion acre-feet of water in Nebraska’s aquifer system

augmentation wells to pump this additional recharge water from the aquifer to supplement streams in times of need

increased use of ag technologies, including no-till and irrigation management tools, to save irrigation water

control of evasive species to reduce non-beneficial water consumption

For more information, go to www.nebraskawaterbalance.com.

Alliance provides points to ponder

On its website, the Nebraska Water Balance Alliance lays out several general points about its mission and what it hopes to accomplish. The alliance:

knows a solution won’t be easy

supports the use of both surface and groundwater

believes water consumption may need to be reduced as part of an overall plan

understands the need for compliance and regulation

believes a cost-effective solution may be possible, that local economies don’t need to be damaged and that they actually still have some potential to be improved

believes in using existing and newly developed research and data to come to new solutions

understands the importance of maintaining adequate streamflows

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A water budget: Inventorying Nebraska’s total water supply and determining a water budgetare goals of the newly formed Nebraska Water Balance Alliance. Protecting streamflows and sustaining local ag economies also are objectives. Photo shows the North Loup River.

This article published in the April, 2011 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.