LINCOLN — A key part of a creative idea to solve water shortages in the Platte River has failed an engineering review by the state's largest irrigation district.
Natural resources managers along the Platte have said stream flows could be boosted if the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District managed their project for groundwater recharge instead of surface water irrigation.
Under such a scenario, more efficient center pivot systems would apply groundwater to crop fields that currently receive surface water directly from the Platte.
Such a switch also has been billed as a way to help improve recreation at Lake McConaughy, situated along the North Platte River near Ogallala.
But when it comes to the state's largest reservoir, the proposal doesn't hold water, Mike Drain, Central's natural resources manager, said Monday. Central's internal review of the proposal's data showed McConaughy would drop further and fluctuate more under groundwater management.
“It doesn't seem — even based on their own data — that it would be a good thing for recreation,” Drain said, after presenting his findings at Central's monthly board meeting near Ogallala.
Central holds the legal right to water stored in Lake McConaughy for the purposes of providing surface irrigation to more than 100,000 acres of land in south-central Nebraska.
A “pre-feasibility study” by the Central Platte and Twin Platte Natural Resources Districts indicated that the water level at Lake McConaughy would be lower, but more stable, if groundwater management were adopted. Under current management, the lake level fluctuates wildly, depending upon rains and upstream snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains.
Kent Miller, manager of the Twin Platte NRD, stood behind the study Monday.
“We still think it's feasible,” he said. “We think there's potential benefits to recreation and potential benefits to water in the Platte River.”
Central is in the process of reviewing other aspects of the proposal, such as its effect on Platte flows. Until those evaluations are done, no final decisions about the concept will be made, said Don Kraus, Central's general manager.
When the NRDs announced the results of the preliminary study in May, it generated buzz as a potential solution to the vexing problem of finding adequate water to meet the needs of irrigation, wildlife and the state's major cities, which rely on the Platte for drinking water.
Switching to groundwater management also has been billed as a way to help Nebraska potentially save money by complying with endangered species regulations. By some estimates, compliance with the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program could cost up to $500 million.
The proposal will be discussed Nov. 13 at a Lincoln conference hosted by the Nebraska Water Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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