Review of ‘Unusual’ 2018-19 Water Year

To say it has been an unusual year is perhaps an understatement.

The 2018-19 water year ended on Sept. 30 (a water year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 of the next year) and it was a year marked by heavy and frequent rain storms, floods, planting delays, bone-chilling winter temperatures, and even “bomb cyclones,” among other anomalies in terms of weather and water.

While this part of Nebraska was largely spared from the calamities that befell other parts of the state (except for the deluge that caused flooding along Turkey Creek in Kearney and the Wood River flooding that struck several other central Nebraska towns), it has also been an unusual year for the water supply at Lake McConaughy.  While total water year inflows were above average, the 1.19 million acre-feet barely cracked the Top 20, finishing at 19th highest in the reservoir’s history.  (An acre-foot is the volume of water that would cover one acre with 12 inches.)

But it was the inflows during the summer months that made the water year unusual.  Normally inflows are highest in October and then in May and early June.  In fact, from October of last year through May, inflows were pretty much in line with the normal monthly averages.

Then came summer.  Inflows to Lake McConaughy during June were twice the normal amount; more than two and a half times normal in July; and 348 percent of normal in August.  In fact, the 162,843 acre-feet (a-f) that flowed into Lake McConaughy in August was the highest monthly total for the year.  Historically, as one would expect in a snowmelt-fed basin, inflows during August are near the low point for the year, trailing only July (median inflows of 46,815 a-f in August and 45,718 a-f in July).

Several factors converged to yield this outcome.  First, mountain snowpack in Colorado and Wyoming was above average in all three basins – the upper and lower North Platte River and the South Platte River – that affect river flows into Nebraska.  The subsequent runoff, particularly in the North Platte Basin in which Lake McConaughy is located, entered U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) reservoirs in Wyoming that were already holding plentiful supplies of carryover storage from the last year.

Second, frequent precipitation across much of the Platte Valley suppressed demand for irrigation.  Rainfall during the growing season (April through September) collected in Central’s Holdrege gauge totaled 25.44 inches, compared with the 20-year average of 18.63 inches and 19.0 inches since 1957.

However, the frequency of precipitation perhaps played a more significant part in reducing irrigation demand than the amount of rainfall.  Few weeks went by this summer without some amount of rain, which was often enough to dissuade an irrigator from starting his pivot or opening the gates on his pipe.

And finally, a mid-July tunnel collapse on an irrigation canal that delivers water to the Goshen Irrigation District in Wyoming and the Gering-Ft. Laramie Canal in Nebraska’s Panhandle, prevented delivery of water to about 107,000 acres in the two states.  With abundant water already in storage and the approaching need to make room for next year’s inflows, releases from the USBR reservoirs that normally would been diverted into the two canals continued downstream to Lake McConaughy.

Lake McConaughy’s lowest elevation (3,252.5 feet above sea level) during the 2018-19 water year actually occurred on Oct. 1, 2018, the first day of the water year.  The reservoir’s peak elevation occurred on July 15 at 3,260.1 feet, declining to elevation 3,257.9 in mid-August and currently stands near elevation 3,259.0, about six feet below full elevation.

And here’s an interesting observation:  Lake McConaughy’s elevation of 3,258.7 feet on Aug. 31 was the same as it was on Aug. 1.  A check back through the data reveals that that has never happened in the reservoir’s 79 years.  While August’s inflows were well short of a record amount, the monthly total did rank fifth behind 2010, 1973, 2011 and the record of more than 328,000 a-f in 1983.

So if you’ve noticed quite a bit more water flowing down the Platte River this summer, that’s the explanation.  A lot of water going into Lake McConaughy, and once it was released, not much demand for it to be diverted into the many irrigation canals along the central Platte.

With long-range forecasts calling for a cold and wet winter, one wonders what Mother Nature has in store for Nebraska in the new water year.

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Spring has sprung (hasn’t it?), and water’s flowing downhill

Spring has sprung (hasn’t it?), and water’s flowing downhill

During Central’s April board meeting, Hydraulic Project Operations Manager Cory Steinke engaged board members and everyone else at the meeting in an exercise to illustrate the complexity and difficulty of managing water supplies.

Each participant was given a stack of pennies that represented the existing – and future – water supply in storage at Lake McConaughy.

The point of the exercise was to complete a four-year cycle of inflows and releases without 1) running out of pennies (water); and 2) leaving insufficient space for additional pennies (inflows) resulting in a “spill” of valuable water.  (A “spill” is a release of excess water from a reservoir.)

During the exercise, Steinke was repeatedly asked for more information pertaining to various snowpack conditions, irrigation demand, upstream storage reservoir conditions, weather forecasts, etc.  But a crystal ball was not part of the game, just as water managers usually cannot see clearly very far into the future.  They must rely on the best available information – both short-term and long-term – on which to base their decisions and even the best, most recent information, can be subject to rapid change.

Operational projections begin with known quantities of water in storage at the beginning and end of any particular cycle.  Despite having access to the latest forecasts, any unexpected changes to any of the numerous factors that influence water management operations could leave the participants “penniless,” or at the other end of the spectrum, having too many pennies in the bank.

One need look no further than the recent events afflicting eastern and northeastern Nebraska and western Iowa.  The flood damages were the result of a series of unlikely events occurring simultaneously, creating a scenario that overwhelmed manmade dikes, dams and operational plans and caused creeks and rivers to swell out of their banks.

A coincidence of “unlikely events” is not the same as “impossible events;” even planning that prepared for “unlikely events” and “maximum probable floods” was overcome by the capriciousness of weather and Nature’s unrelenting power.

While flooding along the Platte River did not occur in central and western Nebraska, spring is the time of year when water managers keep particularly close watch on conditions in the upper Platte River basin.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages a series of reservoirs on the North Platte River in Wyoming and monitors snowpack/snowmelt conditions in the North Platte and South Platte drainage basins, recently released its projections for runoff.

The April forecasts indicate the spring snowmelt runoff will be above average.  Total April through July runoff in the North Platte River Basin above Glendo Dam in Wyoming is expected to be 1,005,000 acre-feet (a-f) which is 111% of the 30-year average.

As of March 31, storage content in the North Platte Reservoirs was 1.8 million a-f, which is 110% of the 30-year average.  The total conservation storage capacity of the North Platte Reservoir System is approximately 2.8 million a-f.  At this time, the Bureau is not anticipating a spill of water from Pathfinder Reservoir.

In the South Platte River basin, snowpack conditions are currently at, or slightly above, normal for early April.

Prior to the projections, Central had noticed the increasing snowpack and began making adjustments to water operations to leave space in Lake McConaughy for any extra water released from the upstream reservoirs.

However, the South Platte River remains, as always, a wildcard.  With only minimal amount of off-stream storage capability in Colorado, the South Platte remains susceptible to rapid snowmelt runoff and heavy spring rains that could cause high-water events in western and central Nebraska after it joins with the North Platte River east of the City of North Platte.

Central will continue to monitor developments in the North and South Platte River basins this spring and is tailoring operations to developing conditions, including precipitation forecasts for April and May that call for increased chances for above normal precipitation throughout most of the Platte River Basin.  Lake McConaughy has no designated flood pool (an amount of space in a reservoir designed for flood control used to regulate floodwaters), other than gradually rising restrictions on maximum elevation during the spring, but the reservoir has been operated during high-flow periods when necessary to mitigate downstream flooding that is often the result of high South Platte River flows.

But as demonstrated by recent events, Mother Nature sometimes has plans of her own that overwhelm human efforts to manage our rivers and streams.

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Fund drive launched for water education in honor of Tim Anderson

At the 2018 Nebraska State Irrigation Association/Nebraska Water Resources Association joint annual convention, NSIA leaders launched the Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project, a fund drive to solicit contribution in an effort to advance water education and sustainability in Nebraska.

Former Governor and U.S. Senator Ben Nelson was on hand at a luncheon to introduce the effort and spoke glowingly of Anderson’s efforts to raise awareness about water issues in Nebraska and advocate for cooperative, common sense solutions to disputes over water, rather than resorting to litigation or a win/lose approach to water issues.

Below is the text of a letter from Nelson which is among the outreach tools from the NSIA committee that is coordinating the fundraising effort to create an endowment aimed at bringing Nebraskans together on water issues.

Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project

Carrying that Pail Together:  A Letter from former Nebraska Governor and U.S. Senator Benjamin Nelson

Dear Friend,

I am pleased to announce the creation of the Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project.  I was first approached by the Nebraska State Irrigation Association in January to discuss the idea of developing a special memorial in honor of long-time natural resources advocate Tim Anderson.  Tim Anderson was a very good friend of mine who mentored me and took me under his wing.  Tim faithfully informed me of our state’s difficult water issues while I had the distinct honor of serving as Nebraska’s Governor and Senator.  Tim passed away in October of 2017 after a passionate career centered around Nebraska’s water resources.

To honor his memory, I would like to share a story about Tim with you as well.  Tim would often sit on his dock at his cabin watching the sunset over Plum Creek Canyon Lake on a supply canal west of Johnson Lake.  He would hum the bars of one of his favorite songs, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” by Otis Redding on those warm summer evenings:

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun,

I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes.

Watchin’ the ships roll in,

Then I watch ‘em roll away again.

He would envision those ships coming and going, docking, unloading and loading up again, then steaming off to another port.  Throughout his career, Tim looked upon people as coming and going, unloading information and gathering information and then taking these bits and pieces of information and ideas to other destinations.  His goal was to bring together this continuum of thoughts and concerns and engage people to have meaningful conversations.  Tim believed that if folks could sit down together and discuss water concerns and ideas with equal passion that those around the table might realize that they have more in common rather than a barn full of differences.  It was his definition of “water collegiality,” where an inclusive vision of Nebraska’s shared water future was attainable through productive discourse and functional compromise.  By no coincidence, this song was played at his funeral.

The Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project can achieve such objectives as:

  • Supporting the Nebraska Water Leaders Academy – The Academy provides learning opportunities that focus on cooperative approaches to solving Nebraska’s water issues.
  • Creating Water Resources Partnerships – Hosting “think tank” sessions with water leaders around Nebraska.

Through your donation to the Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project, you will be directly impacting Nebraska’s shared water future by creating a greater understanding of Nebraska’s water heritage.  You will essentially be building a “house of water sustainability” whereby collegiality is the foundation.  Discourse becomes the load-bearing walls.  Education frames the windows and doors of creativity.  Compromise and understanding become the roof under which conservation is blanketed.  The value of this house is a direct reflection of your generosity.

As you know, Nebraska is blessed with a wonderful bounty of water, but it is imperative to keep our water plentiful and clean.  Your gift will be aiding the promotion of water collegiality, developing water leaders, and ensuring that Tim’s seminal message of how blessed we are to have this water heritage lives onward.  He carried his virtue for water sustainability like a pail full of water.

Nebraska is one of the few places in the world fortunate enough to have this water resource.  Tim spent time sittin’ on his own dock surrounded by this gift of water and I want to thank you for considering a gift to the Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project.

Respectfully,

/s/ Ben Nelson

The Honorable Benjamin Nelson

Nebraska Governor and United States Senator

 

For more information about contributing to the fund, you can call Lee Orton at (402) 476-0162, or print the form below and mail it to:

Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project

c/o Water Futures Partnership-Nebraska, Inc.

1233 Lincoln Mall, Ste. #201

Lincoln, NE  68508

Contribution amount (Please make checks payable to the Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project):
$1,000 __$500 __$300 __$250 __$100 __$50 __$25 __Other __
Name
Address
CityStateZip Code
PhoneE-mail
Mastercard __Visa __Discover __Credit Card No.Exp. Date:___/___
___ Please call me at the phone number that I provided.  I would like to discuss donating real property in the form of items, collections, and/or land.
*We do not trade, rent, sell or share the names, addresses or e-mails of our donors.  Your contribution is tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law.

Central Hosts Leadership Nebraska Class XI

Central Hosts Leadership Nebraska Class XI

The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District had the great pleasure to host Class XI of the Leadership Nebraska program at Kingsley Dam/Lake McConaughy on Aug. 16, 2018.

Numbering around 25 people, the class learned about the construction, development and operation of the Central District while visiting the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Visitors Center/Water Interpretive Center, as well as Lake McConaughy’s outlet structures and the Kingsley Hydroplant.

During the briefing about the District’s operations, the group learned that the annual economic impact of the Kingsley Dam/Lake McConaughy hydroelectric-irrigation project is estimated to be between $556 to $806 million (according to a study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of the development of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program in the early 2000s).

The economic benefits were diverse and derived from irrigation for agriculture, recreational pursuits at Lake McConaughy and associated facilities, hydropower generation and power plant cooling water.

Devin Brundage (top center in red shirt) explains the operation of the Kingsley Hydroplant to Leadership class members.

The class also listened to a presentation by Colby Johnson, NGPC’s regional park superintendent, about the economic and social impact at recreation at Lake McConaughy/Lake Ogallala as well as throughout Nebraska.

The product of planning committee formed by the Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2005, the first class was assembled in 2007.  The program is geared toward people who have demonstrated community and professional leadership experiences and who desire to further develop their leadership skills and potential.

According to the Leadership Nebraska web site:

“Leadership Nebraska is a program designed for current and future Nebraska leaders to view the economic and political challenges and opportunities that face Nebraska.  (The program’s) mission is to identify, educate, communicate with, inspire and engage Nebraska’s current and emerging leaders for the well-being of the state of Nebraska.”

With the spray emitting from the bypass valve at Kingsley Hydroplant as a backdrop, Class XI poses for a group photo.

Class sessions are held in various parts of the state.  Each of the two-day sessions focuses on important issues in those areas and typically cover topics related to economic development, workforce development and education, agriculture and the environment, government and politics, and health and human services.

Central provided lunch to the class as part of the day’s activities.

(Note: Central employs three graduates of the Leadership Nebraska program:  Engineering Services Manager Eric Hixson, Class I, 2007; Public Relations Manager Jeff Buettner, Class XI, 2012; and Gothenburg Division Manager Devin Brundage, Class IX, 2016.)

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Tours and Interesting People

Tours and Interesting People

I just completed a series of tours of facilities that are part of The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District’s hydropower-irrigation project.  In fact, I was leading tours on seven of ten work days over a recent two-week period.

That in itself is not news.  Organizing and leading tours of the project is part of my job, a part that I greatly enjoy, and it was just happenstance that the tours were all scheduled so closely together.  Such tours are a valuable part of our public relations tool box.  You can look at maps, diagrams and videos, but nothing beats “boots on the ground.”

As an aside, I’ve often wished that I had kept track of how many project tours I’ve personally been part of over the last 28 years, but sadly, neglected to do so.  I’m guessing that it’s around 200.

Groups that have toured Central’s project are incredibly diverse.  Space does not permit a listing of the many different kinds of groups and organizations who made the trip to Lake McConaughy and back, but they range from irrigation customers and cabin owners to representatives of governmental agencies and local service clubs.

Participants have come from across the state and from all over the world.  We’ve had visitors from Africa, Asia, South America and Europe.  There’ve been politicians, political candidates and professors; senior citizens in life-long learning programs and students in law school, graduate school and high school.  We’ve hosted groups from environmental organizations, members of the media, and Extension educators from across the state.  And on and on.

But it’s not the number of groups that have toured the project over the years that sticks out, it’s the hundreds of interesting people who make up those groups.

One such person was Harold Stevens, the late Dawson County Extension agent, who was far more than just a tour participant.  Working with Central personnel, he organized what he called “5-O-5 tours.”  The name came from the plan for the tour to depart from Lexington at 5 a.m., and return the same day at 5 p.m.

His tours began in the 1950s when Harold would string together a caravan of vehicles and visit facilities operated by Central, the Platte Valley Public Power and Irrigation District (which merged with two other public power entities to become the Nebraska Public Power District) and other area irrigation companies.

At the time, Kingsley Dam, Lake McConaughy, the hydroelectric plants, and the canal systems and reservoirs were still relatively new on the scene, wonders of modern engineering that attracted visitors from across the region.

A few decades later, the caravans – which were assembled once or twice a year – were replaced by Central’s passenger van and traversed the route two or three times each summer.  At some point in the 1990s, Harold was reminded that, given the dwindling rural population of the state and changing habits, fewer and fewer people were around who knew what it meant to get out of bed before 5 a.m.

It took some convincing, but we were eventually able to persuade him to re-name the tour, calling it the “7-O-7 tour.”  The change in timing helped continue to populate the tour and Harold kept at it until he had organized and participated in 104 “5-O-5 / 7-O-7” tours.  His last tour took place in 2003, only months before he passed away at the age of 85.

At one time, it was common for Central to conduct two-day tours simply because there are a lot of miles to travel and many interesting sights to see.  The end of the first day found the groups at Jeffrey Lodge, where a boat cruise on Jeffrey Lake, a steak dinner and continued discussion of any number of current topics awaited.

In today’s busy world, it seems that potential tour participants are reluctant – or unable – to escape their day jobs for two whole days.  One-day tours – kind of like Stevens’ “7-O-7 tours” – are now the most common.  And that’s a shame because we’re unable to really take in the whole project in a single day, simply because of the time constraints and distances involved.

But that leads to my point.  We still offer tours of the project.  Put together a group of nine or 10 folks who might be interested, arrange a date or dates that work and we’ll take care of the rest.  It won’t cost you a dime, other than the cost of traveling to our front door.

There’s much to see and experience.  And then you can become part of another group full of interesting people who have toured the Central District’s hydro-irrigation project.

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Vigilance Necessary to Protect Water Sustainability Fund

Vigilance Necessary to Protect Water Sustainability Fund

You can’t say it wasn’t expected.

A bill in the Nebraska Legislature this session sought to take money from the Water Sustainability Fund (WSF) for a purpose that was completely unrelated to the original intent and objectives of the WSF.

Thankfully, the bill did not pass, largely due to the efforts of a number of senators who opposed the measure.  However, it reminds those who are responsible for managing the state’s water resources to remain vigilant about such future attempts.

First, a little background.

Former State Senator Tom Carlson of Holdrege (Dist. 38) introduced a bill during the 2013 session that created the Water Funding Task Force.  The task force consisted of 34 members concerned with ensuring sustainable use of Nebraska’s water resources.  Original task force members represented virtually all of Nebraska’s water resources interests, from agriculture, utilities and municipalities to wildlife and recreation.

The task force’s objectives were ambitious in scope, but can be condensed into a few primary goals: make recommendations for developing water-funding legislation that would contribute to achieving sustainable use of water in Nebraska; identify potential sources of funding for programs, projects and activities; and develop a set of criteria by which potential projects would be evaluated and ranked according to how well they met the criteria.

The task force met more than 30 times between July and December 2013 at various sites across the state.  The product of these meetings was the establishment of a Water Sustainability Fund intended to assist projects (with a 40-percent match from the sponsor) that increased the available water supply, reduced water use, increased stream flows, improved water quality, provided flood control enhancements, ensured adequate water for agricultural, municipal and industrial uses, addressed wildlife needs, and improved recreational benefits.  The efforts culminated in the passage of LB1098 during the 2014 legislative session, which created the WSF and assigned its oversight to an expanded Natural Resources Commission.

The scoring criteria for the WSF developed by the task force was later refined by the Natural Resources Commission with focus on significant and expensive water issues that match the fund’s objectives.

The recent attempt in the Legislature was to reallocate funds from the WSF for use in establishing water supplies for community gardens.  Certainly a commendable purpose, but it failed to fit with any of the objectives identified for water sustainability funding.  Perhaps more importantly, passage of such a bill would have set a dangerous precedent, one that would have encouraged additional efforts to siphon funding from the WSF.

The WSF has seen in the past two years a reduction in its funding, as money is reallocated to help address the state’s budget shortfall.  That’s understandable; almost all state cash funds have been reduced.  Additional hands shaking the piggy bank in the future would diminish the state’s ability to achieve the WSF’s objectives.

Memories surface of how other state program funds have been tapped for purposes other than originally intended, based on the argument that “times have changed and so can funding appropriations.”  That may be true in some cases, but not for the WSF; its task remains the same.  Now entering its fourth grant cycle, the need to sustain and protect Nebraska’s water resources is as great as ever and it is the state as a whole that will benefit.

The next drought is always lurking around the corner.  When it inevitably arrives, the water sustainability improvements made possible by the WSF will prove their worth.  Nebraskans who value the original intent of the Water Sustainability Fund to fund programs and projects that help ensure the availability of water supplies for future generations should remain on guard and be thankful to those who worked so hard to establish a dedicated source of funding to enhance and protect Nebraska’s water resources.

Tim Anderson: Colleague, Mentor, Friend

Tim Anderson: Colleague, Mentor, Friend

This is a reproduction of my first column for the Kearney Hub as a “Soils and Streams” contributor since the untimely passing last October of my predecessor, Tim Anderson.  For years, Tim contributed to the Hub, so it seems fitting that I use this space to share some memories and observations about working with him for more than 27 years.

Tim and I joined The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District in Holdrege at about the same time in August 1990.  I actually arrived a couple of weeks earlier than Tim because he was just transitioning from his position as executive director of the Holdrege Chamber of Commerce and had a few “irons in the fire” that he wanted to take care of before leaving the Chamber.

Central was then in the midst of seeking a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate its hydroelectric facilities associated with Kingsley Dam.  Don Long, the assistant to the general manager at the time who was responsible for public as well as governmental relations for the District, was nearing retirement and Central’s management decided that with the relicensing process underway and a growing need to expand the District’s outreach to the public and the media, it would be best to hire two people for a new public relations department.

Tim was 12 years older than I and much more experienced in working with state senators and other governmental officials, so it was predetermined he would assume the role as Central’s lobbyist and spokesman to the public and the media.  I would support various public relations activities, including the District’s newsletter, news releases, brochures, and eventually our plunge into the “World Wide Web” with the launch of our first web site.

Over the many ensuing years, Tim and I worked together on many projects and traveled many miles together on tours of the project and other Central-related PR business.

One of my favorite memories was one of our first projects:  the search for a time capsule that had been buried inside of Kingsley Dam for opening on the dam’s 100th anniversary.  In 1991, as part of the dam’s 50th anniversary, Tim thought it would be great to retrieve the time capsule and place it in a more accessible place for opening in 2041.  There was just one problem: no one knew where the capsule was located.

A search of Central’s archives turned up no record of its location and an older employee’s vague memory of a plaque describing the capsule’s resting place being sent to the State Capitol for safe-keeping turned out to be a dead end — no one at the Capitol had ever seen or heard of such a plaque.

Undeterred, we pored through old photographs of the dam’s construction, including photos taken during the dedication ceremonies in July 1941.  We found one depicting two young girls – daughters of Central engineers – poised to cut a cable and send the time capsule through a casing deep into the earthen dam.  Thanks to this photographic evidence, we were able to determine the approximate location of the shaft near the south end of the dam.

Tim enlisted the assistance of Rodger Knaggs, then Central’s Kingsley Dam superintendent and an experienced “beach-comber,” to use his metal detector to locate the top of the casing.  In a few days, Rodger called to say he’d gotten some promising “pings.”  Coincidentally, the highway across the dam was being resurfaced; once the concrete and asphalt were removed, it would be easier to find the opening to the shaft.

Tim came into my office and said, “Grab your camera!  Rodger thinks he found the capsule!”

We jumped into his car and raced to Kingsley Dam, arriving just in time to watch the retrieval efforts involving use of a hook at the end of a long cable.  However, it soon became apparent that the casing had bowed enough over the past 50 years that removal of the capsule would be impossible.

Tim was clearly disappointed, but said, “Let’s mark the spot and try not to lose it again!”  Maybe, he continued, in another 50 years some new approach or machinery would make it possible to remove the capsule in time for the dam’s 100th anniversary.  Always the optimist.

On the subject of his columns for the Hub, they were always interesting.  He would give his handwritten article to me to “clean up,” since my college education was in journalism, but whereas I performed the editing function – grammar, punctuation, syntax and the like –the topics and content of the columns were always his.

Over the years, he wrote about many things.  Most were uncontroversial, but he wasn’t averse to occasionally writing about issues that were important to him, even when he knew he might ruffle some feathers.  His topics were typically related to irrigation, natural resources, the importance of public power, the Nebraska Legislature, politics, drought, water law, interstate water issues, and the need for “more young people with fresh ideas to carry on the work” in water resources management.

He even wrote about “global warming,” (or “climate change,” as it’s now called) and what it might mean for the future of Nebraska’s agriculture.  And as part of a column about Legislative leadership, he expressed disappointment that term limits would lead to Sen. Ernie Chambers’ departure from the Legislature at the end of 2008, taking with him his sharp wit and ability to halt the passage of “badly written and poorly conceived bills.”

In the end, what I’ll remember most about Tim were his people skills.  Tim knew people.  I don’t mean he just knew their names and titles; he knew about people.  He could relate stories about prominent politicians, businessmen and community leaders, but not in a name-dropping way.  He knew their personalities and how to best interact with them.  He was the consummate “people person.”

At the same time, he rarely talked about himself or his accomplishments.  He’d share a tidbit or two, usually while talking about someone else as part of the story, but “I” was a rarely used pronoun.  He had a way of turning the conversation, almost imperceptively, back to being about the person with whom he was speaking.

While I’m continuing Tim’s role as a Hub columnist, there’s no way to replace him.  At his funeral, one of the songs Tim chose for the service was “I Did It My Way,” by Frank Sinatra.  Yes, Tim, you certainly did.

2016-17 Water Year in Review

2016-17 Water Year in Review

In what has become somewhat of a tradition on this blog, I’ll recap the just-concluded 2016-17 water year (a water year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 of the following year) and touch on some of the factors that influenced storage supplies at Lake McConaughy for hydroelectric generation, irrigation deliveries, groundwater recharge, wildlife habitat and recreation within Central’s project area.

Lake McConaughy, September 21, 2017 at elevation 3248.2 feet (1.27 million acre-feet).

Monthly inflows during the 2016-17 water year were very near the historical median in each of the first six months of the water year.  The reservoir got a boost during April when inflows were 152% of the historical median.  The 109,809 acre-feet (a-f) of water that flowed into Big Mac during April represents the 13th highest inflows for that month in the reservoir’s 76 years of existence.  (It should be noted that some of those April inflows included transfers from the Environmental Account in Wyoming’s Pathfinder Reservoir, which were passed through Kingsley Dam for the benefit of endangered species habitat in the central reach of the Platte River.)

Other months notable for higher than normal inflows and where they rank for that particular month:  May (140,948 acre-feet, 13th); June (150,326 acre-feet, 20th); and August (89,462 acre-feet, 10th).

Projections for inflows during May, June and into early summer were optimistic, given that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation originally intended to release water that was in excess of its North Platte River reservoirs’ capacity to store (called a “spill”).  Although the spill didn’t materialize, inflows during May and June still were about double the historical median.  In anticipation of the projected spill, Central had increased releases from Lake McConaughy to create sufficient capacity in the reservoir to store the water, rather than pass inflows.  Passing inflows through a full reservoir could have contributed to high-water conditions downstream in the Platte Valley.  Despite the high early releases, McConaughy was still expected to reach its peak at or near the maximum elevation of 3,265.0 feet above mean sea level.

Then it didn’t.

Blame it on the amount of snowpack in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming.  Accumulation started on a high note, particularly in the upper North Platte Basin where it was about 130% of average as late as February.  But experienced water managers will tell you that early snowpack accumulation is not near as important as what happens during the early to mid-spring period.  That tends to be the time when more snow with higher water content falls, which usually determines whether runoff will be high, low or somewhere in between.

In this case, snowfall in the upper North Platte Basin kind of petered out and total snowpack ended up below average.  In the lower basin (above Glendo Reservoir), snowpack never did reach average levels, finishing at about 90% of average, and melted rather quickly.

In the end, the projections were a little off the mark (Mother Nature is notoriously hard to predict with absolute certainty) and as a result Lake McConaughy peaked at elevation 3,258.1 feet on June 21, within a couple of days of when the “normal” peak elevation occurs.  In hindsight, which is, as they saying goes, “always 20/20,” the reservoir would most likely have reached its peak elevation if spring releases were more conservative, but Central was acting on the best available information that called for robust runoff from a snowpack … which didn’t reach expectations.

Nonetheless, total water year inflows amounted to 1,127,049 acre-feet (unofficially), which ranked 22nd in Lake McConaughy’s 76-year history.  For comparison, the historical median inflow is 915,275 acre-feet, while the median inflow over the past 30 years is 758,071 acre-feet.  It was the third consecutive year in which inflows exceeded 1 million acre-feet, but only the fifth time in the last 18 years that it exceeded the historical median.

Another indicator of good inflows occurred this year when non-irrigation season inflows surpassed the historical median of 572,223 a-f.  Non-irrigation season – or the “storage period” when there is no demand for irrigation water – is the period between and including Oct. 1 through April 30.  This year’s inflows of 588,344 a-f eclipsed the historical median, but it’s one of only four years since 1987 that this has happened.

As it turned out, lake levels and cooperative weather were just about perfect for visitors to Lake McConaughy.  The combination of plenty of water and plenty of beach is hard to beat.  Following on the heels of a year in which Lake McConaughy ranked #2 in the state – behind only Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo – with more than 1.3 million visitors, the Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area is expected to again top the 1 million visitor-days mark, although final numbers aren’t yet available.  One of the highlights from last summer was the record-setting number of visitors over the extended Fourth of July holiday weekend.  The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission reported that the 209,813 visitor-days recorded that weekend surpassed the old record of 181,147 set in 2014.

Turning to the irrigation season, the Irrigation Division reported that 162,363 acre-feet of water were diverted into the system during the irrigation season, with average use of 7.2 inches per acre by irrigation customers on Central’s three main irrigation canals, Phelps, E-65 and E-67.

Using delivery data from 1990, 2002 and 2012 – years similar to 2017 in terms of acres, temperatures and rainfall – we see that diversions for irrigation deliveries continue to trend downward over the past 30 years.

The 1990 diversions totaled about 249,000 acre-feet; in 2002 they were around 224,000 acre-feet; and in 2012 – a year particularly noted for lack of summer rainfall – diversions were less than 194,000 acre-feet.

Dave Ford, the Irrigation Division’s manager, attributed the declining irrigation diversions to water conservation efforts and efficiency measures by Central’s customers and within the conveyance system.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is that our customers are growing more crops with less water.”

Over the past 30 years, average diversions into the irrigation canals have dropped from about 225,000 acre-feet/year to around 150,000 acre-feet/year, although that number includes six years during which irrigation customers were allocated less than their full supply of water as a result of an extended drought during the mid-2000s.

I’ll also mention that the 7.2 inches/acre average use was about two inches less than the average over the past 20 years, another indication of efficiency gains and (timely) rainfall.  Finally, of the 162,363 acre-feet diverted into the irrigation canals, more than 101,000 acre-feet was documented as going to groundwater recharge in the area during the irrigation season.  (Note that Central is also planning off-season recharge efforts with its canals as long as the weather and flows in the river cooperate.)

So all in all, it was a pretty good water year.  With all-too-fresh memories of years when inflows failed to surpass 500,000 acre-feet, we are thankful any time they surpass the 1 million mark.

As for the new (2017-18) water year, we’ll have to wait awhile and see.  For what it’s worth, the Old Farmer’s Almanac (hey, they’re as accurate as just about anyone else!) forecast for the inter-mountain region — the area where snowmelt feeds the Platte Basin — says, “Winter will be colder than normal, especially in the south, with the coldest periods from late November into early December and in late December, mid-January, and early February.  Precipitation will be slightly below normal in the north and above in the south, with above-normal snowfall in both.  The snowiest periods will be in early and mid- to late December, mid-January, early and mid-February, and early March.  April and May will be warmer and slightly drier than normal.

Finally, upstream storage in the Bureau’s North Platte Reservoirs is in good shape with Pathfinder Reservoir currently at 74% of capacity and Seminoe Reservoir 80% full.  That’s a good way to start a new year!

 

The blog author does not claim to be a hydrologist, but some people think he’s all wet.

UNL Law Students Tour Central’s Project

UNL Law Students Tour Central’s Project

Continuing a tradition that dates to the mid 1960s, students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law recently toured Central’s hydro-irrigation project as part of an “Environmental Law and Water Resource Management Seminar.”

The tour is part of an interdisciplinary seminar with the Department of Civil Engineering.  Emphasis usually is placed on contemporary environmental issues and water resource management.

UNL law professor Anthony Schutz, a native of Elwood, Neb., has arranged for the tour in recent years.  This year he was accompanied by Brian Dunnigan, former NDNR director and now working for the engineering firm Olsson Associates, who is a guest lecturer for the seminar.

The students and their instructors traveled from Lincoln early in the morning to meet me at Central’s administrative headquarters in Holdrege for a brief preview of the project and a description of Central’s operations.  They then jumped back onto the motor coach and toured through several stops in the irrigated area, including sites that featured pivot turnouts from the canal, a sub-surface drip irrigation installation, an example of a “drop-span” pivot near Loomis, and a site in the E67 Canal area equipped with telemetry equipment (all 80-odd customer turnouts in the E67 area have such equipment) to provide customers with near real-time water delivery and evapotranspiration data.

After a trip across the Johnson Lake Dam, a stop at the lake’s inlet and a peek at the new head gate on the E65 Canal, the group headed for lunch at the Gothenburg Barn and Grill.  The bus then headed for the Gothenburg Control Center where Gothenburg Division Manager Devin Brundage explained the control center’s function and provided more detail about generation at Central’s hydroelectric plants.

From Gothenburg, the bus headed to North Platte where Kent Miller, manager of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District, briefed the students about the NRD’s functions and current projects, including participation in the NCORPE river augmentation project.

Then it was on to Jeffrey Lodge at Jeffrey Lake where the group enjoyed a catered dinner followed by a discussion with three attorneys from the area.

The 2017 UNL Engineering/Law Student Tour group stands for a photo in the shadow of the Outlet Tower at Lake McConaughy. Law Professor Anthony Schutz is second from left, and Brian Dunnigan, guest lecturer, is at far right.

This year, rather than discussing water law, the focus was on a different legal issue.  Retired attorney and Gosper County Judge Carlton Clark, current Gosper County Judge Todd Wilson and Bronson (B.J.) Malcom, an attorney in Cozad, spoke to the law students about giving some thought to practicing law in rural Nebraska.  Attorneys in some rural Nebraska counties can be pretty sparse on the ground, which provides an opportunity for young lawyers to get started in their profession, practice in a variety of legal proceedings, and fill a need that currently exists outside of Nebraska’s metropolitan areas.

The next morning, after a continental breakfast at the lodge, the group headed to Kingsley Dam and Lake McConaughy.

The students had an opportunity to browse through the Water Interpretive Center at the Lake McConaughy Visitors Center and watched a 20-minute video featuring an actor portrayal of the late, great Sen. George Norris in which he explains the importance of water within the Platte River Basin.

Tom Hayden, supervisor of NDNR’s West Field Office Operations in Bridgeport, Neb., was a special guest speaker on the tour, explaining to the students the complicated world of water administration in Nebraska.  I could almost see the students’ heads spinning as Tom related stories of administering flows in the Platte River.  His job has become ever more complicated as demands for water increase from every direction (environmental account flows, instream flow appropriations, excess flow calculations, special water legislation, etc.).

The outlet structures and Kingsley Dam photographed from the “Hilltop” on Day 2 of the tour. As you can see by the blue skies and placid water of Lake McConaughy, it was a beautiful day for a tour.

After Hayden’s presentation, the group visited the outlet structures for Lake McConaughy (the outlet tower and the “Morning Glory” spillway), pausing for the group picture that accompanies this story.  The next stop was the “physical exercise” portion of the tour:  the trip down and back up several flights of stairs to explore the inner workings of the Kingsley Hydroplant courtesy of Kingsley Dam Foreman Nate Nielsen.

Finally, having worked up sufficient appetites, the students boarded the bus for a short ride to Ole’s Big Game Bar and Grill at Paxton where Central treated them to a lunch of buffalo burgers before sending them back to their studies in Lincoln.  Good luck on the quiz over what you learned while on tour!

***

Research of the District’s archives indicates that the first law school tour of Central’s project took place in March of 1964.  Professors Richard Harnsberger and John Gradwohl shepherded the first class of law students on the three-day project tour.  District personnel conducting the tour included Don Long, assistant to the general manager; Bernard Donelan, manager of the Kingsley Division; and Ralph Knepper, hydraulic engineer.  Evenings were spent at Jeffrey Lodge discussing legal aspects of the project and water law issues with Ralph Canaday, who was Central’s chief legal counsel from the first years of the District’s formation until his retirement in 1959.  Canaday remained active with the District as a consultant for several years after his retirement.

A course in water law took on new meaning for this group of University of Nebraska law students in 1964. The group is shown at Jeffrey Lodge with R.O. Canaday, former legal counsel for Central, seated in the middle, and Professors John Gradwohl (standing at left) and Richard Harnsberger (standing at right). Participants on the tour included (not in order in the photo) Earl Ahlschwede of York; Robert Calkings, Lincoln; Calvin Robinson, Broken Bow; Peter Henstad, Lincoln; David Maser, Sutton; James Sheldon, Lincoln; Robert Snell, Columbus; Richard Spaedt, Lincoln; and Dennis Winkle, Pickrell.

The water law tour has been going on ever since, with but a few interruptions caused by weather or scheduling conflicts.  Over the years, the focus of the seminar evolved from just water law and future attorneys to include graduate students from UNL’s engineering college.  Professor Ralph Marlette was instrumental in involving students from the Department of Civil Engineering in the tour.  Harnsberger and Marlette led the tours for through the 1970s and ‘80s until retiring and handing off the seminar to Law Professor Norm Thorson, and a series of civil engineering professors, including John Stansbury and Rollin Hotchkiss.

Later, former NDNR director and civil engineer Mike Jess, who was a guest lecturer for the seminar and also was once an engineering student on the tour in the 1960s, helped conduct the tours for several years.  Ann Bleed, also a former NDNR director, succeeded Jess and this year the tour welcomed yet another former NDNR director, Brian Dunnigan.  Sandra Zellmer, a UNL law professor with an impressive background in water and natural resources law has also filled in occasionally during the tour.

A feature that was added – or returned — to the tour within the past decade was the after-dinner discussion with practicing attorneys about water law.  Mike Klein, Central’s long-time legal counsel, and Judge James Doyle, now a District Court Judge, but formerly the legal counsel for some Natural Resources Districts, have led lively and entertaining discussions about various legal aspects, court cases and administrative actions involving Nebraska’s water resources.

 


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