SMITHFIELD, Neb. — The first transfer of water from one river in Nebraska to another could be just over the horizon under a proposal that finally floated its way to Lincoln.
Or this historic trans-basin diversion from the Platte River to the Republican River could join the list of similar schemes dating to the 1930s that created controversy and left trails of lawsuits before evaporating into dashed dreams in dry places.
The plan is to divert excess Platte water via canal, culvert and pipeline over the Platte-Republican divide near Smithfield in south-central Nebraska’s Gosper County and run it south into the Republican via Turkey Creek.
The 25-mile-long stream is a tributary of the Republican starting about 3 miles west of Smithfield. It empties into the Republican between Edison and Oxford. The Republican River rises in Colorado and crosses southern Nebraska before flowing into Kansas.
The primary objective is to help ensure the state’s compliance with an interstate compact that allocates certain percentages of the Republican River’s flows to Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado, said John Thorburn, general manager of the Tri-Basin Natural Resources District in Holdrege. Although the states have been working in harmony on managing the river in recent years, disputes among the three have escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
After three years of active planning, project proponents submitted their initial permit paperwork to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources last week.
Tri-Basin partnered with the Alma-based Lower Republican NRD to develop the $1.4 million to $1.9 million enterprise known as the Platte Republican Diversion Project. It would tap Platte water from a canal owned by the Holdrege-based Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District. The district stores North Platte River water in Lake McConaughy in western Nebraska and delivers it downstream and into canals for delivery to farmers to irrigate cropland.
“This is precedent-setting for Nebraska,” Thorburn said. “We’d be taking otherwise ‘wasted’ water to be put to good use for a beneficial purpose.”
Thorburn and others expect resistance from environmental organizations that have raised concerns, saying there really isn’t extra water in the Platte and that it’s all precious in providing habitat for endangered bird species, including the whooping crane, piping plover and least tern.
The Platte’s floodwater — the excess flows that would be diverted at times — scrubs trees and other vegetation from sand bars and other important habitat for sandhill cranes. Downstream near Lincoln and Omaha, the river replenishes aquifers and well fields providing drinking water to the state’s two largest cities.
The diversion would not occur during the June-through-August irrigation season, Thorburn said.
The potential economic impact of the project in the Republican basin would range from $14.2 million to $33 million, depending on how much of the water required to meet interstate agreements and obligations comes from the diversion versus other sources, according to a study by the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The Platte in central Nebraska is designated by the Natural Resources Department as overappropriated, meaning there is more demand for the water than the river can provide. It is the state’s only overappropriated river. Still, there are times when floods funnel high water down the river’s usually shallow channels.
An engineering study by Olsson Associates of Lincoln for the project partners indicated that under two scenarios a potential 57,000 to nearly 140,000 acre-feet of unallocated water could have been diverted from the Platte into the Republican during the period of 2013 to 2016. An acre-foot is the volume of water that would cover an acre of land 12 inches deep.
The peak scenario would require 100 cubic feet per second of water to flow down Turkey Creek at times. A cubic foot is like a box of water measuring one foot by one foot by one foot. It contains around 7½ gallons. This rate of flow is a bit less than the volume of water Omahans see in Big Papillion Creek at Q Street in a typical March.
Turkey Creek’s current base flow is about 12 cubic feet per second. Erosion-control measures and other improvements would allow the creek to handle diverted flows up to 100 cubic feet per second without damaging the surrounding land in Gosper and Furnas Counties, according to the engineering study. The draft application calls for diverting 275 cubic feet per second from the Platte in order to provide up to 100 cubic feet per second into Turkey Creek.
During the four-year period ending in 2016, the three natural resources districts in the Republican basin pumped about 132,000 acre-feet of underground water into the Republican in order to ensure that Nebraska complied with the three-state compact those years. Project advocates say excess flows from the Platte — those that exceed demands — would be used to offset any potential Nebraska overuse of the Republican in the future, reducing or eliminating the cost of these or other management actions.
State and local water regulators have worked for several years to avoid violating the compact and triggering court sanctions. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nebraska to pay Kansas $5.5 million for its overuse of about 70,000 acre-feet of water during 2005 and ’06. The court made it clear that the cost of a future violation could be significantly greater.
Thorburn said the Platte typically carries more water than uses demand about four years each decade. Those years won’t necessarily coincide with periods when water is needed in the Republican. Tapping Platte water two or three years each decade would likely be often enough to make the project cost effective, he said.
Proponents say that if the project had been in place at the beginning of 2013 — and had accessed all available water — it would have paid for itself three to four times over by the end of 2016.
Central Public Power and the NRDs would jointly hold the water right associated with the project, said Dave Ford, Central’s irrigation manager.
Thorburn said that to ensure that diverting water outside the Platte basin doesn’t interfere with potential future uses for excess flows within the watershed, the NRDs will pledge not to claim priority over future Platte basin projects if the water right is granted. The water right would be junior to all others in the basin.
The permit process requires the sponsors to first seek approval to file the application by showing that there is unappropriated water in the Platte at times, said Mike Thompson, the Natural Resources Department’s permits manager. If the petition is approved, the application for the trans-basin diversion can be submitted. Public hearings are possible.
Thorburn said then-State Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial originally proposed the diversion project about a decade ago.