AP NEWS

NRD hosts producer round-table

March 12, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — About three years ago at a North Platte Natural Resources District round-table in Oshkosh, a landowner in the district came forward with an idea.

The producer suggested the NRD could buy back a portion of their unused groundwater allocation rather than carrying it forward to the next year.

That idea would later become the NRD’s Encouraging Producer Innovation through Conservation (EPIC) allocation buy-back program — a wildly successful NRD program that has helped landowners hedge financial risks while also helping the district meet its obligations to the North Platte River Basin and the State of Nebraska.

“We continue to do these meetings because often times our constituents have a heck of a lot better ideas than we do,” North Platte NRD General Manager John Berge said.

Berge provided updates on EPIC and other programs the NRD has been working on during the sixth annual producer round-table at the 21st Century Learning Center.

The district has been working with 30 stakeholders over the last seven months to draft the next increment of its Integrated Management Plan (IMP). Districts which are designated as fully- and over-appropriated are required under state statute to develop a plan to meet certain goals. For example, the first increment of the IMP required that the NRD meet pre-1997 levels of groundwater depletion, and that it return 8,000 ae-ft of water back to the North Platte River each year in perpetuity. Berge said The North Platte NRD was one of only a few districts who had met the goals of the first increment. The NRD has had its final meeting of the planning process for the second increment a few weeks ago, however, Berge said the draft IMP is not final because the plan requires a consensus of all stakeholders and there was one objector. The draft now goes back to NRD and Nebraska Department of Natural Resources to negotiate before board approval and public hearings, which are scheduled for April. Berge said the hope is for the final draft of the IMP to be adopted by August.

The intention of the second increment IMP will be to maintain progress until the district reaches the target for a fully-appropriated designation, which Berge said has yet to be defined.

“We do not know what that (fully-appropriated) number is supposed to be,” he said. “It could be where we are at, or it could be 30,000 more acre-feet to the river. In the interim, while the science is catching up with the math, we are going maintain our level of progress.”

Berge said that to date the district returns about 23,000 acre-ft of water back to the river compared to where the district was when it implemented the first round of the IMP a decade ago.

“We have created a scenario where we’ll be in very good shape once fully-appropriated is defined,” he said. “That will allow us to take a glide path to our ultimate goal instead of jumping off a cliff.”

Berge said the district has also been working on a rewrite of its rules. This includes making the rules the same for Pumpkin Creek Basin and other over-appropriated areas in the North Platte Valley when it comes to how rules are enforced. “The rules are in legalese and are not terribly easy to read,” he said. “The major part of this rules rewrite is to improve the readability and improve the referencing so they make a little bit more sense.”

Berge said the rules committee meetings are published as public notices and that the public are invited to attend and submit their input.

One of the major issues the district is looking to address is water quality management, which include looking at different ways to more progressively address the district’s difficult nitrate program.

“The levels of nitrates are not leveling,” Berge said. “We’re seeing it trend upward, and we want to address that before it becomes a really significant problem.”

The NRD’s board of directors has opted to form a nitrate advisory group which includes people from the retail community, landowners, municipal governments, and academics. Berge said the first meeting of the group is scheduled for April 18.

“We’ve got a broadband of people to provide us some advice as to how some of these proposed changes would impact the way people operate,” Berge said.

The district is working on grant proposals to study the impacts of nutrient management on surface water, as well as a study at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff which Berge said will inform the rules changes for nutrient management.

Other programs include a recent pilot program agreement with Denver-based technology company Mammoth Trading to provide analytics on water use to producers in the area. Berge said the project in essence turns the landowners cellphone into a telemetry unit. The app works by a landowner taking a picture of their water meter which will be fitted with a special QR code. Mammoth will then compare that information, and return with analytics such as rainfall, soil moisture, and aggregate information about what other irrigators nearby are doing, allowing producers to make decisions based on data instead of relying on timing and traditions. The data collected through the program is not given back to NRD for regulatory measures, and information about neighboring water use is provided without identifying information. Berge said there is enough funding in the pilot available for 500 meters, which are provided at no cost to the landowner. Landowners who are interested can contact Water Resources Coordinator Scott Schaneman at sschaneman@npnrd.org.

spike.jordan@starherald.com