LINCOLN (AP) — A new virtual market for leasing rights to the High Plains Aquifer could benefit endangered species, bolster river conservation efforts and help farmers in Nebraska's Central Platte Natural Resources District get groundwater where they want it.

The Groundwater Exchange is being developed as a pilot program for the district, a 175-mile stretch along the Platte between Gothenburg and Columbus, the Lincoln Journal Star reports. It would let farmers and conservation groups lease or buy water for a single growing season.

If the Central Platte board members vote to move forward with the exchange, it could be accessed through an auction website during a trial run this spring.

Officials say the computer algorithm that pairs buyers and sellers ensures that all deals meet local rules and won't negatively affect the river system.

David McAdams, the Duke University economics professor who designed the algorithm for the leasing process, said farmers will get to set the price at which they're willing to buy or sell water, and the algorithm figures the market price for groundwater at each location, ensuring farmers get the most value from the water.

"It also opens up new irrigation strategies to farmers," he said. "Previously it was a use-it-or-lose-it situation. Now if you don't use it you can make some money."

The district has more than a million irrigated acres of farm ground. About 20 percent of the district is over-appropriated, meaning too much water is being pumped to be sustainable. The other 80 percent is fully appropriated, which means no new groundwater irrigation can be developed unless it is offset by stopping irrigation elsewhere.

Jerry Kenny of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program said his only concern about the exchange is that water will be in such high demand that his organization will be outbid.

The recovery program plans to bid $300,000 the first year in hopes of getting 5,000 acre feet for enhancing, restoring and protecting habitat for endangered species.

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