Normally at this time of the year, Rex Black would be calving cows.
He’d be fixing fences for summer pasture and getting ready to plant on his 2,100-acre ranch near Spencer, Nebraska.
But that was before a wall of water, ice and debris swept away a pipe crossing beneath the Niobrara River that carried crucial drinking water to Boyd County.
A few pieces now rest on a sand bar and Black, the volunteer chairman of the board for Rural Water District No. 2, is worrying about how to provide fresh drinking water for the thousands of people — and cattle — in the county.
“You can see the stress on him,” says wife Melanie.
Black isn’t alone. Supervisors and commissioners in the 81 counties across Nebraska affected by flooding and other weather disasters will be fretting in coming days about how to finance repairs. The bill for destroyed roads, bridges, culverts, water systems and flooded buildings will be in the millions.
Repairs to one Niobrara River bridge alone will cost around $5 million, and will be the responsibility of Rock and Keya Paha Counties.
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“All of this is going to be a huge impact on the counties,” says Douglas Fox, emergency management coordinator for Boyd, Brown, Cherry, Keya Paha and Rock Counties, which have been included in a federal disaster declaration.
Fox said he anticipates that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay for 75 percent of those repairs. “But it could be three years before they see any money.”
So that means county leaders across the state will have to find ways to finance costly repairs until the federal money comes through. And they’ll still be responsible for their 25 percent.
In southeast Nebraska, the city of Peru is without drinking water, too. Its water treatment plant was flooded, and there is no timetable for when power will be restored.
But Fox says Boyd County is in a unique position in that the private entity provides the drinking water for not only the towns of Spencer, Lynch and Anoka but also for 500 farms and ranches.
Black is caught between a rock and a hard place, Fox says, because he couldn’t afford to wait a day to start replacing the 1,500 feet of the 12-inch pipe.
“You have to get water to people and animals in Boyd County,” he said.
The Rural Water District was already $1 million in debt due to expansion. Now it faces another $1.1 million bill on the bid just accepted to bore a new supply line. Black anticipates that the district’s share of the costs for the bore and a temporary fix will be $400,000.
“As a water district, we are nonprofit and only have so much money to work with,” Black said. He said officials have started to reach out to the private and business sectors for funding.
Even with a bid accepted and machinery moving into place, it will take at least 42 days to get water running again once work starts.
Black, his six fellow board members and the water district manager have found two private wells that are producing water at 80 percent capacity. But it will cost the water district roughly $150,000 just to get them up and running.
Black doesn’t like the idea of raising rates for people who have already been through so much.
So, he’s trying to be creative. He’s taken daughter Chaney’s suggestion and started a GoFundMe page to help finance repairs. So far, the campaign has raised about $120,000, and he’s grateful.
But he can’t stop worrying. Will FEMA really be there in three years? How many more expenses will there be?
“All those questions go through your mind,” he said. “It’s all going to be expensive.”