Last summer, in the heat of one of the worst droughts to hit Nebraska in decades, water became a hot button issue, especially for farmers. As irrigators struggled to keep up with the water needs of their crops during the heat and extreme drought of July and August, Lower Elkhorn Natural Resource District office staff in Norfolk began fielding a record number of well interference reports for domestic, livestock and irrigation wells throughout their district.
More than 100 reports of well interference issues were received by the Lower Elkhorn NRD in 2012. "The summer of 2012 was like no other for interference reports in this district," says Lower Elkhorn NRD groundwater management area specialist, Brian Bruckner. "In the past we might have received a half dozen interference reports versus well over 100 for 2012. What is somewhat alarming to the staff is that in 2010, groundwater level data showed water levels throughout the district generally in excellent condition and in some instances, at record highs," he says. "Along comes one severe drought and we've taken the top off of that pretty quickly." Bruckner believes that 2012 exposed weaknesses in the resilience of the aquifers in some parts of their district.
At their regular meeting on Jan. 25, the Lower Elkhorn NRD board created five groundwater quantity management subareas in parts of Madison, Pierce and Wayne counties. These areas include the Battle Creek Subarea, Pierce County Subarea, Northern Chapin Subarea in Wayne County, Eastern Madison County Subarea and the Wayne County Subarea. Irrigation water allocations were developed in two of the areas in eastern Madison County and Wayne County.
"The allocation amounts were determined with assistance from University of Nebraska Extension irrigation professionals using actual historic weather data to establish the irrigation requirements for each area," he says.
McCrometer inline flow meters as measuring devices must be installed by May 1 this season in the eastern Madison County and Wayne County subareas. Producers have until May 1, 2014, to install these devices in the northern Chapin, Pierce County and Battle Creek subareas.
In all five subareas, there will be no new irrigated acres and no off-season irrigation will be allowed, except for cover crops. Mandatory irrigation educational requirements will be enforced, and new domestic wells must be dug at specific depth to alleviate chances that they will experience interference issues. The measures chosen by Lower Elkhorn NRD are not new. Similar rules have been implemented over the past several years at other NRDs, especially in the Republican River Basin.
Cost-share funding through Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP, and through the Lower Elkhorn NRD will be available to producers to assist with implementation, he says.
Going into this upcoming season, water levels in district monitoring wells are being watched closely. "We'll check our observation wells in April, and this is the data we're most curious about because we saw year to year declines in excess of 30 feet in some of these wells, from the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2012," Bruckner says. "The fall of 2012 showed record declines in a high percentage of the same wells."
The adoption of new irrigation rules is a crucial milestone, says Bruckner. "We are working on an implementation strategy and will go to great lengths to work with landowners this first season to insure compliance," he says. For more information on the new Lower Elkhorn NRD groundwater management rules, contact the NRD office at 402-371-7313 or email Bruckner at [email protected].