It now depends on when the trigger is reached and pulled. That's the scenario facing irrigators in the Upper Big Blue NRD, which includes all of York County and parts eight other counties.
The board of directors in this intensely irrigated NRD, by a margin of 12 to 3, voted to set specific groundwater allocation amounts and timeframes, and to require irrigation well flow meters, all when the district's groundwater trigger level is reached. That trigger is the 1978 average groundwater level, the lowest point recorded in the district's annual groundwater measurements.
"We could get to the allocation in one dry year, or we might get a wet season or two, and not get there for a few years, says John Turnbull, Upper Big Blue NRD general manager. "But measures are in place to continue to maintain the sustainability of groundwater in our district," he said after the vote.
Reaching the triggering level seemed a long way off until the drought of 2012, which caused heavy pumping across the district. The average NRD-wide groundwater decline was 4.38 feet when measured in spring 2013, the largest one year decline since record keeping began in 1961, and an average decline just three feet above the trigger level.
At the December board meeting, the board set the first groundwater allocation period at 30 inches over three years. An irrigator can go over 10 inches in one year, but would still receive only 30 inches for the three years. Likewise, using 8 inches the first year allows the carryover of 2 inches to the final two years.
Should groundwater levels not recover at the end of the initial three-year allocation, a second allocation period of 45 inches over five years would be implemented.
The board's vote also would require mechanical flow meters on all wells greater than 50 gallons per minute output if the trigger level is reached or by Jan. 1, 2016, whichever is first. Electronic flow meters, under the rule changes, are no longer allowed, with the exception of those already in place or those installed up to Feb. 1, 2014, the effective date of the rule changes.
Turnbull says the board made the decision based on historical groundwater use and public comment. "They listened to constituents, reviewed data, considered staff recommendations and held a public hearing," he says. "The regulations adopted allow the producer to spread the allocation over several years, more in dry years and less in wet years. Also, pooling allows the producer to irrigate more on gravity fields and less on center pivot ground, provided the water stays within the allocation limits."
Other decisions made by the board include:
- No restriction on expansion of irrigated acres and no moratoriums on well drilling.
- Groundwater transfers would cease. Those transfers would no longer be allowed if the allocation trigger is reached.
- "Certified groundwater use" acres and pooling. The rule changes provide for the combining of certified groundwater use acres into units. A unit of groundwater use consists of acres in the same government survey section or irrigated by the same well that are under the control of one groundwater user. Pooling refers to the combining of certified "groundwater use acres" (irrigated acres) for the purpose of determining what lands will be assigned an allocation.
For more information, call the NRD at 402-362-6601 or go to www.upperbigblue.org.