Life-giving water is a priceless resource in our state, second only perhaps to Nebraska’s hard-working people. It is simply impossible to calculate the value of our underground water supply, though it is possible, and quite necessary, to measure its depth.
Especially in a land where agriculture is king and the annual bounty from local fields ripples far and wide throughout the economy, having access to a reliable, sustainable underground water supply is a game changer. Hamilton County is so incredibly blessed in that regard, which translated to record ag profits during the 2012 drought.
The thought of having restricted access to that priceless underground Ogallala Aquifer is understandably ruffling some feathers these days. It’s not a new concept in Nebraska by any means, as farmers out in the southwest corner of the state began dealing with water allocations way back in 1978. It is, however, a harsh new potential reality around here.
Emotions flared at a November public hearing in York when the Upper Big Blue Natural Resource District Board discussed Rule 5 changes which could go into effect if the groundwater table goes down another three feet. The Upper Big Blue District, which includes Hamilton County, has not yet hit the trigger level of decline, but it likely will, NRD officials predict, with another dry year or two.
If and when that trigger level is hit, area producers would be allocated 30 acre inches of groundwater over a three-year period, an average of 10 inches per year (see related front page story). The following five years, the allocation would be 45 inches, dropping the average to nine inches per year.
In a “normal” precipitation year, if there is such a thing, those allocation levels would be sufficient for area producers to basically continue doing business as usual. We don’t have to look back far, however, to know what a dramatic impact a 10-inch limit would have had in 2012.
As bitter a pill as this could be to swallow, especially for producers who recently paid top dollar to buy irrigated farmland, the NRD’s big-picture goal is a worthy one. That goal is to sustain the groundwater at 1978 levels or better, in effect managing a complex water regulation business in dry times so the aquifer can recharge itself in good times.
Education is a critical piece of this process, and on that note Rule 5 changes should be required reading for any and all who share a vested interest in the local water supply, as well as the area economy. That would include virtually everyone.
History, and NRD records, have proven that the groundwater will recover if given a chance. As serious as these allocations would be, if implemented, they are part of a logical approach to sustain this invaluable resource for future generations.