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JOHN BERGE: Drought and the North Platte NRD

JOHN BERGE: Drought and the North Platte NRD

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I read with interest the article entitled “Panhandle drought deepens, no measurable precipitation in forecasts,” by Danielle Prokop published in the Sept. 25, 2020 edition of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald. The heart wrenching story of the fire in Hubbard’s Gap earlier this month was seemingly a precursor of what is yet to come.

Since the “flash drought” of 2012, the North Platte Natural Resources District (NPNRD) staff and Board of Directors have wrestled with drought mitigation and planning. As one of our board members stated at that time, “the worst time to plan for drought is in the middle of a drought.” That sense of foreboding and urgency is what led our organization to adopt a Drought Mitigation Plan in 2017. We knew then, and we know now that the question is not if our area would be impacted by drought, it is a matter of when and how severe.

Our District is a 3.5-million-acre area covering 4 1/3 counties of the Nebraska Panhandle, and amongst our twelve statutory charges is the management of the quantity and quality of groundwater. Our District, in normal years, receives 12-16 inches of precipitation per year, and our soils are quite sandy in comparison to the rest of Nebraska. Our aquifer system is not the deep Ogallala formation, but is made up of a series of shallow alluvium whose recharge is highly dependent on snow melt from the Northern Colorado and Southern Wyoming Rocky Mountains that feeds the North Platte River. The river’s tributaries are largely fed by the North Platte Project, a series of irrigation canals that are over a century old. This system, in normal precipitation years, is highly effective at providing enough water to meet our crop and livestock production needs, municipal needs, industrial needs, and domestic well needs. Unfortunately, for the first time since 2012, our precipitation is anything but normal, and the impacts of this long, hot and dry summer will have lasting impacts.

As any reader will note, the D3 designation in the Panhandle is almost a perfect overlay of much of our District. As Ms. Prokop notes in her article, there are short-term impacts to forage. Hay was selling just a few months ago for $70-80 per ton, and rates have now skyrocketed to $200 per ton. Pasture conditions in our area can only be described as poor, and cattle operations, already deeply impacted by the COVID-19 public health emergency and its resulting low prices and limitations in slaughter, will be brought to the brink with increased feeding costs and lack of pasture. Additionally, there will be highly detrimental impacts to wheat growers who rely on precipitation in the fall and winter to establish their crop. Without that precipitation, wheat simply will not germinate, and the potential for a “dust-bowl” scenario becomes greater with our historic fall winds.

Longer term impacts without significant increases in precipitation over the fall and winter months could include a lack of storage water in irrigation reservoirs that feed the system in the panhandle. Incidentally, many of these reservoirs will be starting at historic deficits in the spring if these dry conditions continue, as they are expected to do given the La Nina predicted for the next several months. This could potentially change spring planning decisions for agricultural producers. Rather than planting a high-water use crop like corn or sugar beets, for example, producers may decide to plant small grains, impacting not only their bottom line but that of the local and regional economy. There will be longer term impacts to fish and wildlife habitat, potentially impacts to municipal and domestic wells, and even impacts to water quality.

The NPNRD Drought Mitigation Plan is largely an information and education plan by which we provide resources and referrals to the public on improving water management for production agriculture, homeowners, municipalities, and industrial needs. The plan was the result of a two-year stakeholder engagement process that included end users of the resource across the spectrum. NPNRD recently launched our Drought page on our website: npnrd.org. This page includes a great deal of useful information designed to assist water users in making the best decisions for their farms, homes, and families. Additionally, many of our water regulations and projects are designed with water savings in mind. These include allocation of groundwater withdrawal – including a five-year allocation period, allowing for additional irrigation during a drought, a moratorium on well drilling and acre expansion, and certification of groundwater uses. Projects include targeted retirements of groundwater irrigation, leases of surface water irrigation, and surface water intentional recharge. We also benefit from the use of federal set-aside contracts through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), and the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) that take irrigated acres out of crop production for a limited period of time. We routinely spend $250,000 per year on cost-share programs with most of those dollars going to improve irrigation efficiencies.

Even with information and investments from your NRD, there is more needed. Members of the public should seek assistance from state and federal policy makers through disaster designations and the resulting assistance. CRP Haying and Grazing and roadside haying can provide much needed forage for livestock growers, and disaster payments can provide much needed financial relief from losses that may come because of dry weather. Ag producers should be in touch with agronomists and crop consultants as well as their crop insurance agents to determine their options regarding planting and cropping decisions as this situation progresses.

In 2007, when this area was in the throes of a multi-year drought, a farmer told me, “Don’t worry John, it will rain again.” He was right, but with added foresight, planning and policy response, the wait will not be as painful as it has been in the past. Your NRD is working hard to help support that goal.

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