Water service agreement being finalized, but more big steps ahead for proposed Platte-Republican diversion project

Water service agreement being finalized, but more big steps ahead for proposed Platte-Republican diversion project

Tuesday, July 11, 2017 - 9:10am

By LORI POTTER 

Hub Staff Writer

Jul 5, 2017 Updated Jul 5, 2017

SMITHFIELD — An important step soon may be complete for a proposal to divert excess Platte River flows into the Republican Basin.

The project would take the Platte water, when available, from the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District’s E-65 Canal, under Highway 23 west of Smithfield, into the east branch of Turkey Creek and on to the Republican River.

First, there must be a water service agreement between CNPPID and two Republican Basin natural resources districts proposing the project: Holdrege-based Tri-Basin and Alma-based Lower Republican.

The CNPPID directors approved the agreement this morning at their meeting in Holdrege. It now will be considered by the two NRD boards.

“The idea has been out there for decades, I think, with several different sites looked at,” Tri-Basin General Manager John Thorburn of Holdrege said. He emphasized that diversions would occur only at times when the Platte is high enough to first meet all other more senior water rights and target river flows for endangered species.

The proposed site works well, he said, because it is on the divide between the Platte and Republican basins. The Central canal is along the north side of Highway 23, and the water can flow under the highway directly into a pasture canyon leading to Turkey Creek.

It would enter the Republican River 25 miles downstream between Oxford and Edison and then be held in Harlan County Lake for use when needed for compliance with the 1943 Republican River Compact.

Thorburn said there is some natural movement of water between the two basins. “We just want to enhance that.”

The NRDs’ compact compliance responsibilities are to offset streamflow effects resulting from use of hydrologically connected groundwater. The requirements are being addressed with conservation and augmentation projects.

Thorburn and LRNRD Assistant Manager Scott Dicke of Alma said the alternative would be shutting down thousands of irrigation wells in the Republican Basin.

Tri-Basin already gets some augmentation credits from agreements with CNPPID to divert excess Platte flows into Elwood Reservoir for groundwater recharge that eventually benefits the Republican River.

Both districts have moratoriums on net irrigated acres. The LRNRD also has a well moratorium and irrigation allocation of 45 inches over five years.

“The Republican Basin irrigators in Nebraska are the most regulated in the state, maybe the nation,” Thorburn said. “Whenever there are high (Platte) flows, we hear from our constituents about why we are letting all that water get away.”

He said the Turkey Creek diversion pipeline would have a capacity of 100 cubic feet per second, but the highest base flows Turkey Creek can handle are 40-60 cfs.

Thorburn has said there is potential to divert an annual average of 6,000 acre-feet through the project. The water would be fully credited for compact compliance as imported water from the Platte Basin.

An Olsson Associates study commissioned by the two NRDs determined it would be cost effective, based on an estimated cost of $1.4 million-$1.9 million. “It tells us there is a great opportunity to move ahead,” Dicke said.

“The wild card is we can’t depend on high flows in the Platte at any given time,” Thorburn said, “So there are times when there aren’t going to be diversions into the Republican.”

The Turkey Creek project would be unique, but it’s not the first attempt to divert Platte water to another basin. There was an effort in the 1980s for a Platte-to-Little Blue project, also using the CNPPID system.

 Mike Jess of Lincoln, who then was the newly appointed Nebraska Department of Water Resources director, said the Little Blue NRD’s goal was to build a reservoir on the river in the Campbell-Bladen area.

Although the Nebraska Supreme Court had ruled in 1980 that such transfers were legal, the project was opposed by Platte Basin NRDs and faced a required consultation with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission on possible effects on endangered species or critical habitat.

Jess said funding also was a huge unresolved issue.

The Catherland Irrigation District took up the cause after the Little Blue NRD withdrew, but the project wasn’t built.

With any water project, it never is only about funding, current DNR Director Jeff Fassett said.

“They are just by their very nature controversial,” he told the Hub during the 2017 Nebraska Water and Natural Resources Tour.

Fassett said it’s a plus that the current proposed Platte-Republican diversion would involve water rights junior to all other Platte River water rights.

However, he expects there will be objections, especially from Platte Basin environmental interests. That increases the odds of an appeal no matter how Fassett rules on the water right application the Tri-Basin and Lower Republican NRDs must submit to DNR for the diversion project.

Also, Fassett doesn’t see much surplus in the Platte Basin beyond the existing water rights. “That’s ultimately what I’ll be faced with,” he said.

lori.potter@kearneyhub.com

 

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