New agreement to help protect Niobrara River Basin
KEARNEY — The Niobrara River Basin Alliance, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Nebraska Public Power District took a significant step forward Monday toward protecting the Niobrara River Basin, water flows and all users of the river — now and in the future.
The three groups signed a purchase agreement for the eventual transfer of the assets and water rights associated with the hydro-electric generating facility near Spencer from NPPD to the game and parks commission and the river basin alliance on or before Jan. 31, 2021. The alliance is made up of four natural resources districts.
The agreement is part of a series of steps that started with a memorandum of understanding entered into by the parties in September 2015.
The agreement will assist in providing protection for all users of the river including wildlife, recreation and agriculture. It will help keep water in the river for fish and wildlife, including endangered species, and will also protect recreation use such as canoeing, tubing and kayaking, along with irrigation for agricultural users.
“Today the game and parks commission and the Niobrara River Basin’s natural resources districts moved one step closer to reaching our goal,” said Jim Douglas, commission director.” “We all want to ensure that the best possible future of the Niobrara River, in which the interests of stakeholders, users, fish and wildlife are all considered.”
Several years earlier, the Niobrara River was the focus of studies and lawsuits. In 2015, the commission and alliance joined together to work with NPPD and seek options for transferring the water rights from Spencer to the state and NRDs.
In 2016, Legislative Bill 1038 was passed that allowed the entire water right to be transferred for basin management purposes while retaining the priority dates; an essential component needed to provide the protection to the river.
“LB1038 was a significant change in Nebraska water law that will be key in protecting the Niobrara River Basin,” said Marty Graff, secretary of the alliance. “The legislation ensures the Spencer water rights retained the seniority needed for instream flows and water user protection.”
The next step is to secure funding to complete the $9 million purchase from the NPPD. The utility company established the original sale price of the facility at $12 million and is providing an in-kind contribution of $3 million.
“NPPD is pleased to be a party to this agreement, which will provide water sustainability in the Niobrara River Valley and enable Nebraskans to continue to enjoy the river for fishing, wildlife, recreation and other uses in the future,” said Joe Citta, NPPD’s corporate environmental manager.