In Sign of the Times, A Water Pipeline in Nebraska Taps the Ogallala to Serve Thirsty Kansas
Though it looks like nothing more than a deep trench cutting across corn stubble and dark winter soil, the big water pipeline that construction workers are about to complete here in southern Nebraska is a powerful example of how water scarcity and the law are converging to change farm production practices on America’s Great Plains.
LINCOLN COUNTY, Nebraska – Though it looks like nothing more than a deep trench cutting across corn stubble and dark winter soil, the big water pipeline that construction workers are about to complete here in southern Nebraska is a powerful example of how water scarcity and the law are converging to change farm production practices on America’s Great Plains.
In the simplest terms, the 10-kilometer (six-mile) NCORPE pipeline will soon have the capacity to carry 19.5 billion gallons of water per year from wells that once irrigated Nebraska corn crops. The water will be dumped into Medicine Creek, a tributary of the Republican River, which flows through Colorado and Nebraska on its way to Kansas. The pipeline meets Nebraska’s legal obligation to deliver water to Kansas.
There is, though, much more to the story than capacity specs. Easily tall enough for a child to stand in, the NCORPE pipeline defines in a new way the limits to Great Plains grain production in a region where the water supply is finite. Its construction, expected to be completed in January, was prompted by two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, collaborative agreements by four water management districts in Nebraska, and $US 120 million from taxes levied on farmers.
The pipeline also is meant to solve a fervent cross-state competition for water, just the sort of struggle that is becoming more common in the United States and around the world. The disputes over rivers that cross borders arise from the increasing demand for fresh water, most often to produce food or energy, the two largest consumers of water. In effect, water managers in the Great Plains find themselves in circumstances familiar to the leaders of Egypt and Ethiopia, or the states of southern India that share the Krishna River.
Each cross-border water dispute starts with distinctive elements. In the Nile Basin, dams for hydropower are seen as a threat to downstream water consumers. For Kansas, the menace is the center-pivot irrigation systems in Nebraska that pump water to the surface night and day during the hot summer growing season.
From Aquifer to River
Perhaps most surprising to an outsider is the source of water that will be used for the NCORPE project: the Ogallala Aquifer.
Extending underground across parts of eight plains states, the Ogallala is the largest freshwater aquifer in the U.S. But because more water is pumped out than filters back into the ground, the aquifer is shrinking in large swaths of Kansas and Texas, diminishing to the point that irrigated agriculture is no longer possible in certain areas on the aquifer’s margin. In Nebraska, however, Ogallala water levels are rising slightly.
In 2012, four natural resources districts pooled their money and bought 7,900 hectares (19,500 acres) of farmland in Lincoln County for $US 80 million. No more corn will be grown on the land. Water that used to be withdrawn for irrigation will instead remain in the ground. It will be pumped out in dry years and funneled into the river. In effect, water is the new crop.
The NCORPE pipeline will pull water from a particularly sweet spot in the Ogallala, called the “groundwater mound” because the area in southern Lincoln County is flush with water. Leaky Platte River irrigation canals are located nearby and the water that soaks into the ground flows toward the mound – a water transfer from river to aquifer. The Ogallala is up to 183 meters (600 feet) thick here, a stupefyingly deep layer of saturation compared to the dozens of feet of moisture found in parts of Texas and Kansas.
The NCORPE pipeline is the second pipeline project in the basin that will pump groundwater into the Republican River. A year ago, the $US 25 million Rock Creek project began pumping water from the Ogallala into a Republican River tributary upstream of the NCORPE site.
The two pipeline projects are the most effective way to stay in compliance with a water-sharing agreement between Nebraska and Kansas while protecting 445,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of irrigated farmland in Nebraska’s Republican basin, said Nate Jenkins, assistant manager of the Upper Republican Natural Resources District, which operates the Rock Creek project.
In building the NCORPE pipeline, though, Nebraska farmers and water managers were compelled to grudgingly acknowledge that the 20th century’s production-at-any-cost economic principle that pushed the state to become the nation’s third largest corn producer and the largest farmland irrigator – surpassing California – was being supplanted in the 21st century by new barriers to production. Chief among them is how to share water across political boundaries in an aquifer-fed agricultural region that is growing hotter and drier.
The NCORPE pipeline is an attempt to answer that question while protecting the region’s economic base. Nebraska’s agricultural growth was driven by technological innovation and abundant stocks of water in its slice of the Ogallala Aquifer. But irrigation expansion and steadily rising water withdrawals reaped controversy. Kansas officials claimed that Nebraska’s grain boom and the huge quantities of Ogallala water that made plentiful harvests possible was drawing water away from the Republican River – water that Kansas was legally entitled to receive.
In water law circles that is a no-no. Most major rivers in the western U.S. are governed by compacts that allocate water between states and establish a process for resolving disputes. The Republican River, an important irrigation source for north-central Kansas, is protected by a compact that divides the water between Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska. In 1998, and again in 2010, Kansas brought lawsuits before the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that groundwater use in Nebraska was decreasing the amount of water in the river that would have naturally flowed to Kansas. The nation’s highest court has sided with each state on certain issues.
Spurred by the first lawsuit, the Court brokered a settlement in 2002 between the two states that asserted that groundwater pumping in Nebraska did indeed deplete the river: a win for Kansas.
In the most recent case – still being litigated before the Court – Kansas argued that Nebraska was still failing to meet its obligations. Kansas requested that 121,405 hectares (300,000 acres) of irrigated farmland in Nebraska be shut down for grain production in order to protect the Republican River. A court-appointed special master recommended in November 2013 that this draconian measure not be imposed. Nebraska, he argued, had changed its approach and had the tools in place – the NCORPE pipeline project, water restrictions, and temporary pumping bans – to reduce its groundwater demand.
Those changes include serious water conservation measures. All three natural resources districts in Nebraska adjacent to the Republican now have a cap on how much water a farmer can withdraw from the aquifer each year. In 2008, for example, the Lower Republican Natural Resource District enacted the strictest groundwater pumping limit on the Great Plains. It allows farmers just 244,387 gallons per acre per year, a 25 percent cut from the previous standard.
“Nebraska has presented a credible case that it began turning over a new leaf in 2007 and thereafter, planning for compliance with more care and urgency,” wrote William Kayatta, the special master, in his report to the Supreme Court.
A Preservation Plan
Nebraska had much to lose if it did not change its farm practices. Between 1974 and 2008, irrigated acreage in the state more than doubled, helping corn production to soar from 388 million bushels to 1.4 billion bushels in the same period, a nearly fourfold increase. Nebraska’s corn crop is the nation’s third largest, the foundation of a $21 billion agricultural economy that supports 46,800 farms and ranches.
By tapping the Ogallala, lucrative corn crops flourished – but at a natural and legal expense. Water that used to percolate through soils no longer reaches the river. After years of pumping, a well will create a depression in the water table, like the pit that forms in a milkshake after several minutes of slurping. Water then reverses its natural flow and moves toward the well instead of the river.
Natural resources districts in Nebraska are charged with managing the thousands of wells that pump from the Ogallala. In violation of the Republican River Compact, the three districts along the river faced a dilemma: how to satisfy Kansas’s water claims while retaining as much profitable irrigated land as possible – irrigated land that produced at least $US 1.5 billion worth of grain and soybeans in 2007.
The solution may seem odd – after all, pumping groundwater caused the problem. But Jenkins says that the district’s regulations on water use will ensure compliance with the compact.
“If you live outside of the basin, there’s the perception of pumping our way out of a problem, but our basin is well regulated,” Jenkins told Circle of Blue.
The Upper Republican NRD, a participant in NCORPE, imposed one of the first groundwater pumping restrictions in the nation in 1979. Those initial limits did not preserve the river so the district has gradually strengthened them.
The restrictions, along with porous soils and better recharge, have helped stabilize the Ogallala here. Unlike most of the southern plains, the aquifer is actually rising slightly in Nebraska, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The water districts operating NCORPE are confident that their groundwater pumping plan will move the state to the right side of the law. The test will come during the dry years, when demand for groundwater typically increases.
Based on historical records, the districts estimate that they will need to pump water into the Republican once every three years, Jenkins said. But the plains is known for erratic swings from wet to dry, and with climate change, the past is becoming a less reliable indicator of what is to come.
“It’s a rough estimate,” Jenkins said. “It’s anybody’s guess. It depends on the weather.”