LINCOLN — The Lower Platte River Basin Coalition, which includes all seven Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) in the Loup, Elkhorn, and Lower Platte River Basins, and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (NeDNR) has, after several years of work, adopted and now initiated implementation of a voluntary basin-wide water management plan that sets criteria for managing new water development in the Lower Platte River (basin). The jointly-developed plan implements goals and objectives that work to protect the existing domestic, agricultural, and industrial water uses in the Basin. The Coalition partners worked to use the best available science to evaluate the balance of supply and demands in the Basin that begins in Nebraska’s water-rich sandhills and ends at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers, covering more than 25,000 square miles, or nearly one-third of Nebraska.
This unique Basin provides water for irrigation that sustains the area’s agricultural economy, drinking water for more than half of Nebraska’s residents, as well as other important industrial and instream water demands.
“This proactive partnership worked to voluntarily develop a plan for the future conjunctive management of the groundwater and surface water systems in this important river basin,” Russell Callan, General Manager, Lower Loup NRD, said. “Nebraska’s locally-driven groundwater management system, through NRDs, is a unique and strong approach for our state. This comprehensive basin-wide plan is another example of local and state jurisdictional entities working in partnership to protect all of Nebraska’s water users, protecting lives, Nebraskans’ property and our economic future, Callan said
For more than 45 years, locally-elected NRD boards have successfully worked to address local groundwater quantity and quality management challenges. Water managers have recognized that what occurs in the sandhills of the upper portions of the Loup and Elkhorn Basins impacts the Lower Platte River Basin near Lincoln and Omaha’s water supplies in the lower portion of the Basin. Likewise, changes in a variety of water demands in the lower part of the Basin can impact the upper portion of the Basin. This Basin planning effort improves the collaboration between groundwater and surface water jurisdictions and managers across the whole Basin and establishes a framework for continually assessing impacts and identifying opportunities for more efficient uses of Nebraska’s water. The plan also encourages local NRD and stakeholders to work together with the state to consistently gather and share data, apply technical analyses that will be used for long-term monitoring, and establish benchmarks to maintain water sustainability across the entire Basin.
“The fact that seven locally elected boards with varying local priorities were able to voluntarily sit down with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources and develop a plan that works to protect all water uses now and for the future, as a foundation to grow our economy, while also ensuring our most precious natural resource is protected, is a valuable outcome for all water users in the state,” said Jeff Fassett, Director of NeDNR.
Results from the water balance study that was developed by the Coalition indicated that, on an average annual basis, supply in the Basin exceeds the existing demands. Recognizing the opportunity this presents, but also wanting to be always aware of periodic droughts and protective of the long-term sustainability of the Basin’s water supply, the Coalition partners developed a measured, incremental approach to allowing additional new uses. The adopted plan developed targets for allowable development at no more than 10% of the current identifiable long-term average excess waters during the first five-year increment of the plan. It is up to each local NRD board, along with NeDNR, to determine if and how they want to allow for the development of any new groundwater and surface water uses. The plan also lays out a process for annual collection and reporting of important data that will be used to monitor the plan’s implementation. Each member will report to the Coalition annually on any new water uses and their associated streamflow depletions or projects developed to mitigate streamflow depletions.
“While this first increment uses the best science available today, an incremental approach ensures we will continue to use the best available science,” Mike Sousek, General Manager, Lower Elkhorn NRD, said. “We want Nebraskans to benefit from the available excess water, but we also want to avoid a situation where we exceed the available secure and reliable water supplies. This careful, incremental approach and annual reporting will allow us to continually assess changes, adapt, and adjust as needed to ensure existing users are protected,” Sousek said.
While the long-term historic Basin streamflows highlight the overall positive balance in the Basin, unfortunately, much of the identified usable supplies occurs during the non-peak water use season, or fall and winter months, when demands for the excess water are much less. But to water managers in the Basin, this average excess supply represents an opportunity for implementing more effective management strategies going forward.
“This plan is a proactive approach to address sound water management, which is the number one priority in the world,” said John Winkler, General Manager, Papio-Missouri River NRD. “By capturing and storing some of the water during the non-peak period, those flows can be retimed for delivery during the peak demand periods, not only helping to meet demands during times of drought or when dry conditions warrant, but also mitigating flood potential during extreme excess flow events,” Winkler said.
Other efforts by the Lower Platte South, Lower Platte North, and Papio-Missouri River NRDs, in partnership with the Metropolitan Utilities District (MUD), the Lincoln Water System, and NeDNR are looking at opportunities to further address drought periods and when peak demands overlap periods when streamflows are at their lowest.
“The Basin-Wide Plan is really a step forward for everyone in the Basin,” Paul Zillig, General Manager, Lower Platte South NRD, said. “In conjunction with our own drought mitigation planning, the plan allows for potential upstream development, while protecting existing and future municipal, industrial, and instream water demands downstream.”
— Nebraska Association of Resources Districts
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