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NEBRASKA ORDERS IRRIGATORS TO CEASE PUMPING WATER FROM RIVERS
Lincoln (NE) Star Journal reports:

More than 1,000 irrigators across Nebraska have been ordered by the state to stop pumping from rivers and streams until drought conditions improve.

As of Friday, the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources issued 1,106 shut-off notices to farmers and ranchers in every river basin in the state with the exception of the Little Blue in southeast Nebraska and smaller tributaries along the Missouri River.

"Water administration is occurring everywhere across the state to some degree," Natural Resources Director Brian Dunnigan said. "We're mostly closing for irrigation."

Moderate drought or worse conditions are plaguing 99.81 percent of Nebraska, according to the High Plains Regional Climate Center based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dry weather has been exacerbated by temperatures in the 90s to 100s and very little rainfall since late June.

The Natural Resources Department has jurisdiction over all surface water rights in the state, including those held by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, irrigation districts and individual irrigators.

Water rights are administered on a "first in time, first in right," basis meaning irrigators with the oldest water right are entitled to get water first before more recent water right holders.

During a drought, the state can order junior water right holders to stop pumping from rivers and streams to satisfy those with senior rights.

About 300 shut-off notices have been sent to irrigators in the Big Blue River basin, which covers Gage, Saline, Seward, Butler, Polk, York, Hamilton and Adams counties.

Those orders were necessary to comply with a compact between Nebraska and Kansas that requires a certain amount of water to flow across state lines in the Big Blue and Little Blue basins.

Target flows vary month to month from May to September. The target on the Big Blue for July is 80 cubic feet per second. Friday morning, the river measured 49 cfs at Barneston.

David Clabaugh, manager of the Lower Big Blue Natural Resources District in Beatrice, said the shut-off notices do not affect irrigators who pump from the ground. The state's 23 NRDs have jurisdiction over groundwater irrigation, and Clabaugh said his district has not sent out any notices.

"We've got trigger levels (when groundwater levels get too low), and we're not there, yet," he said.

Most farmers who are surface water irrigators in the Big Blue River basin who got notices this week probably don't have access to groundwater, Clabaugh said.

The department also has issued notices for the Platte River basin including its tributaries, the Elkhorn and Loup rivers, to comply with an instream flow water right held by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for endangered species protection. About 200 irrigators were ordered to stop pumping water.

Dunnigan said about 335 water right holders in the Niobrara River basin -- from Spencer to the Wyoming-Nebraska state line -- also received notices to satisfy a senior water right held by the Nebraska Public Power District for its Spencer hydroelectric dam.

If dry conditions continue, the department will shut off more irrigators -- a normal practice during times of drought.

"If we don't get rain, of course, during the time period that water is required for irrigation, that would certainly mean there would be more water administration in the future," Dunnigan said.

Lake McConaughy, the state's largest reservoir near Ogallala, was at 69 percent of capacity Friday morning and was providing water to about 1,200 irrigators in Phelps, Kearney, Gosper, Dawson and Lincoln counties. The irrigated area covers about 111,000 acres.

Jeff Buettner, spokesman for the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, which owns and operates the reservoir, said the district will have enough water to meet its contracts, which call for each irrigator to receive 9 inches per acre during the irrigation season. He said if irrigators need more they can go up to 18 inches per acre but have to pay extra.

Buettner said Central is not too concerned about having water for its customers this year but is worried about the future. He said the mountain snowpack was less than anticipated -- compared to the previous year -- and resulted in less runoff into Wyoming reservoirs that supply water to irrigation projects in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. Water from those projects eventually flow into the North Platte River system and into Lake McConaughy.

"This year's snowpack is next year's water supply for Lake McConaughy," Buettner said. "We're looking at the impact next summer and down the road."


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