Water forum targets pumping in Colorado — Goodland lawmaker seeks to gather input that will help ‘preserve’ the Ogallala (Aquifer) for future users’

Water forum targets pumping in Colorado

Goodland lawmaker seeks to gather input that will help ‘preserve’ the Ogallala (Aquifer) for future users’

By TIM UNRUH Salina Journal

Apr 4, 2015

ST. FRANCIS — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and a few water-conscious underlings plan to discuss with locals Tuesday in St. Francis how water is being used in a three-state region.

Water from the Ogallala Aquifer, the huge underground driver of farm economies in portions of several states, is being mined to satisfy federal streamflow requirements on the Republican River.

Rep. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, wonders about the wisdom of taking a resource that developed over centuries to enhance a river, losing some of the resource to seepage and evaporation.

“It makes no sense,” he said. “Here we are, trying to get a new vision out to preserve water for 50 years, and we have Colorado across the line, pumping from the Ogallala to replace surface water.”

The meeting will begin at 10:30 a.m. at the Cheyenne County 4-H Building in St. Francis.

Billinger aims to gather input on the pumping project and “possible ways to preserve the Ogallala for future users.”

Two similar augmentation projects just ceased in two areas of western Nebraska.

The Republican River Water Conservation District in northeast Colorado is pumping from eight irrigation wells into a pipeline that dumps into the north fork of the Republican. The district delivers 7,000 acre feet of water to the river from November through December, and from January through mid-April will pump another 7,000 acre-feet, said Deb Daniel, manager of the district based in Wray, Colo. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land 1 foot deep, or 325,851 gallons.

“The only way we can supply enough water to be in compact compliance is by delivering water to the stream,” she said.

Another effort to comply consisted of draining Bonny Reservoir northeast of Burlington during 2011 and 2012. It was the only lake in the region.

Evaporation and seepage from the lake were working against Colorado’s compliance, Daniel said.

Two projects helped flows

The pumping project is nothing new to the area.

Two projects in Nebraska involved enhancing Republican River flows. The Rock Creek project of the Upper Republican Natural Resources District ceased in January after just less than two years of pumping from 10 wells that once irrigated some 5,200 acres. The wells sent 13,000 gallons a minute into Rock Creek, which dumps into the Republican. The district bought the land in 2011 and built a pumping system for roughly $21 million.

The Lincoln project, officially known as the Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement Project, involved four natural resource districts and operated from March 2014 through late March, retiring nearly 16,000 acres from irrigation. The cost to date is approximately $100 million, said Kyle Shepherd, of North Platte, Neb., the N-Corpe manager.

Those projects combined “prevented the shutdown of approximately 300,000 irrigated acres in Nebraska and reduced the amount of time that surface water users in Nebraska had water administered away from them,” said Nate Jenkins, assistant manager of the Upper Republican NRD.

“Agreements were reached that will allow that water to aid Kansas users at times when they need it,” he said.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that awarded Nebraska 10,000 acre feet of credit each year will result in Nebraska pumping less, Jenkins said.

Project benefits north fork

The Colorado project involved the water rights from 53 irrigation wells, ending irrigation on 10,000 acres of land. Currently eight wells are pumping into the river system and another seven will be attached, Daniel said. The output from those 15 wells will equal the combined appropriation allowed from the 53 wells, she said. Only the amount of water that would have been consumed by crops on those acres — consumptive use — from those wells is allowed to be sent down the river. The Republican River Water Conservation District in Colorado spent $58 million to purchase the water rights and build a pipeline, Daniel said.

Rep. Billinger argues that the pumping project benefits the north fork of the Republican, which doesn’t enter Kansas until it reaches Jewell County, in the north-central part of the state. The south fork dips into Kansas through Cheyenne County and flows back into Nebraska.

Among Billinger’s options is to influence Colorado to stop pumping water from the Ogallala to replace surface water.

Hoping for long-term solutions

The Kansas lawmaker also would advocate for Colorado putting water back in Bonny Reservoir, earmarking storage for Kansas, and enhancing the region’s fishing and other recreation opportunities.

Given the demands for compliance, Colorado’s Daniel said the district “didn’t have any choice.”

Billinger is after long-term solutions from water conservation programs.

“It needs to resonate in the area. It has to be something that local irrigators and users bring themselves,” he said. “I don’t think it’s something that can be mandated from Topeka. All of the stakeholders need to get together and work on viable options. That’s the reason we’re having that meeting next week.”

Representatives from Daniel’s district are planning to attend the Tuesday meeting in St. Francis. NRD officials from Nebraska also are interested in what’s said at the meeting, Jenkins said, and some may attend.

Accompanying Brownback will be Kansas Agriculture Secretary Jackie McClaskey, Chief Water Engineer David Barfield and Kansas Water Office Director Tracy Streeter.

Meanwhile, Billinger, who owns a farm, will continue to hope for moisture.

“If you get rainfall,” he said, “it makes a good farmer out of all of us.”