Changing Times on the Niobrara River Basin
In September several entities that in the past have differed in opinion on water management came together for the benefit of all users in the Niobrara Basin. The result was a memorandum of understanding that eventually will lead to the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) ceasing generation of electricity at the Spencer Hydroelectric facility (Spencer) and turning water rights over to the five Niobrara River Basin Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The agreement will result in water being managed for agriculture, fish, wildlife and recreational benefits throughout the basin rather than at a single point. As well, the agreement provides options for future management that puts or keeps water in the river when needed.
Why Spencer? Surface water in Nebraska is regulated based on first in time and first in right – meaning older or senior rights are entitled to water first. The Spencer facility has three water rights with priority dates of 1896, 1923 and 1942 that tie up a large amount of water, and to meet these rights users are regulated all the way to the Nebraska-Wyoming state line. While a new water right could be applied for, the right would be junior to NPPD and would limit the amount of upstream management that could be pursued. The existing rights will provide protection for all users now and into the future.
Will this instantly solve every water issue in the basin? Probably not, as the acquisition is only one step. Through basin planning that is currently being undertaken with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, stakeholder concerns can be identified and options will be explored to best address these concerns. The combination of the planning process and the acquisition of the water rights will set the path forward for economic and environmental success within the Niobrara Basin
Change is never easy and in the midst of change pessimists search for opportunities to question why or what if. Rather than focusing on the negatives, optimists ask why not and how far. Consider if the Wright brothers had only worried about crashing when testing the Kitty Hawk?
In 1972, the Nebraska Legislature created the Natural Resources Districts with the goal of local control where local solutions are developed for local problems. The senators certainly recognized that the problems and solutions of the Platte River or Loup River are likely not the same throughout the state. This agreement is an example of the unique challenges each basin faces and how local leaders can successfully address these challenges.
Terry Julesgard, Manager Dennis Schueth, Manager
Lower Niobrara NRD Upper Elkhorn NRD
Butte, NE O’Neill, NE