Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

In the Loup: The Lower Loup Natural Resources District Uses Science, Partnerships, and Stakeholder Buy-In to Conserve Nebraska’s Precious Natural Resources By Alan J. Bartels

Water Programs Specialist Jason Moudry and Projects Technician Brian Kolar checking a monitoring well in Columbus, Nebraska. The LLNRD is in the process of installing an innovative structure to increase groundwater levels in a specific region of Columbus’s east side.

In the heart of Nebraska, the Lower Loup Natural Resources District (LLNRD) stretches from the eastern Sandhills north and east past Burwell, Albion, and Petersburg, south to Buffalo County, and east to the Columbus area. The district, headquartered in Ord, stretches 156 miles east to west and 96 miles north to south, making it the largest of Nebraska’s natural resources districts (NRDs). At 7,923 square miles, it occupies more than 10 percent of the land in Nebraska. Along with the LLNRD’s large size come big challenges. The LLNRD’s management sees those as immense opportunities for implementing innovative solutions.

Navigating Uncharted Waters 

Technician Dan Ray, who recently retired after 45 years with the LLNRD, teaches new tech Jordyn Duffek the ins and outs of sampling irrigation wells in Greeley County.

While much of the district is blessed with Ogallala Aquifer– fed streams and rising static water levels, a water shortage issue rose to the surface recently toward the eastern end of the district. LLNRD water technicians had noticed that water levels near Columbus had fallen from 2010 to 2014. Irrigation supplies and commercial and municipal wells were being affected. Residents of a sandpit lake development weren’t happy when their aquatic backyard playground grew shallower while their sandy beaches expanded. 

The NRD could have used its regulatory authority to require the area’s water users to reduce their water usage. In that scenario, local stakeholders, including farmers, residents and some of Columbus’s largest employers, would all lose something. “A better option was to come up with a project to basically just move water around while allowing water users to keep doing what they are doing,” says LLNRD General Manager Russell Callan. 

As its experts worked on a multiyear study, the LLNRD worked as the lead organization in a unique partnership that also includes the City of Columbus, Platte County, the Christopher’s Cove Homeowners’ Association, and agricultural processor Archer Daniels Midland. Grants from the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources’ Nebraska Water Sustainability Fund and the Bureau of Reclamation’s drought resiliency grant program were secured, and a plan came together. 

After passing through the Loup Power District’s hydroelectric dam upstream of Columbus, water from the tailrace canal can be intercepted before returning to the Loup River when needed. A pipeline from the tailrace canal relays water to the previously abandoned Lost Creek Channel south of 8th Street. That creek dried up after a successful flood control project routed its flows around the city. Basements stayed dry, but groundwater levels dropped. The new pipeline will recharge the groundwater in that area and fill an adjacent shallow well. When needed, water will be pumped to Christopher’s Cove. The project is not dependent on the availability of excess precipitation and can be shut down if heavy precipitation is forecasted. 

The innovative project is scheduled to go online in 2022. It exemplifies how partners with varying interests can come together, with NRDs in the lead, to reach common goals while protecting resources. No wonder Nebraska’s unique system of locally controlled, tax-funded, watershed-based conservation is admired throughout the nation. “As I interact with other states and some foreign representatives, it becomes obvious that Nebraska’s NRD system and the ability of our NRD boards to make hard decisions are admired,” says Don Masten of Downey Drilling Inc. in Lexington. “The result of this proactive leadership is a stabilized static water level in much of the state. We’ve created a future for our children and grandchildren as a reward for making the hard decisions and changing the very framework of our ag irrigation culture.”

Not a Question of If, but When 

The LLNRD’s leadership, including its 21‑member board of directors, knows there could come a time when water shortages are the norm. Many of those directors are farmers who know that good times never last forever. Rather than waiting for drought to arrive, the LLNRD has initiated development of a district-wide drought management plan that involves stakeholders from the district. In partnership with JEO Consulting Group, the stakeholders are guided through a series of virtual droughts, increasing from mild to extreme and even exceptional. Real data from past droughts, such as the 2012 drought, are used to create the scenarios. The stakeholders discuss how the presented conditions and possible mitigation actions would influence their operations. “We have managed to assemble a group of very progressive and involved professionals, all with vested interests in water resources,” says Tylr Naprstek, assistant general manager of the LLNRD. “Most have served in some capacity on a similar group to this one. Some examples include those that were involved with development of our voluntary integrated management plan; members of irrigation district boards and farmer-led groups, such as the Nebraska Corn Board; and active municipal managers. The wide array of backgrounds ensures that diverse opinions were included for the development of how the NRD should respond to times of severe drought.” 

These “drought tournaments” have allowed agricultural producers from across the district to form relationships with one another, with LLNRD management, and with personnel from other agencies. They’ve also inspired the stakeholders to think long and hard about the drastic changes they might have to make if ever faced with a prolonged, devastating drought and how their actions could affect neighbors. If ever needed, the stakeholders will be convened to provide input to the LLNRD board of directors in advance of the implementation of drought mitigation measures. “It’s not a question of if, but when the next drought will occur. If you wait for the next drought, it’s too late to properly respond,” says Phil Luebbert of JEO Consulting Group. “The LLNRD’s effort in planning ahead and preparing for future drought periods is crucial to reduce the negative impacts of water scarcity across the region.” Randy Kauk, a farmer and cattleman from Farwell and a member of the LLNRD board of directors, echoes that sentiment: “I’ve got cattails growing in pastures where there were never cattails before. But I know the high water levels won’t last forever. There may be a time when we are hurting for water. Makes good sense to plan for it now.” 

Working Locally, Together 

Locally elected directors represent each NRD in Nebraska. The NRDs’ 12 areas of responsibility include flood control, groundwater quality and quantity, and the prevention of soil erosion and irrigation runoff. Since the establishment of Nebraska’s NRDs in 1972, the LLNRD has planted more than 12 million trees in cooperation with landowners, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Nebraska Forest Service. 

Other partnerships involve multiple NRDs. The Central Platte NRD, headquartered in Grand Island, and the LLNRD are working together on a 3‑year study to determine the effect of cover crops on soil moisture and recharge. After receiving a water sustainability grant from the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, the two NRDs found producers willing to take part in the study. The farmers were already implementing corn-soybean rotations and using cover crops in southern Buffalo County, where research has shown historical declines in the water table. Cover crops are known to improve soil health while also reducing erosion. What is not entirely understood yet is how the cover crops—planted after the producer’s main crop has been harvested—affect groundwater recharge. 

After the fall harvest, half of each study field is planted with a cover crop, such as cereal rye. The rest of the field is left fallow. Soil samples collected by NRD staffers are analyzed for moisture content, nitrate levels, and texture. Moisture sensors buried 18, 72, and 84 inches deep—well out of the way of farm implements—record data continuously while transmitting via a cellular network to a remote location. Experts will crunch the numbers at the end of the study period, with the NRDs ultimately using the information to advise producers. 

The study is a good example of Nebraska’s NRDs working together for the benefit of our entire agricultural state. “The Central Platte NRD and LLNRD are both proactive about protecting our natural resources for future generations,” says Lyndon Vogt, the general manager of the Central Platte NRD. “When opportunities arise for the two of us to share the costs and outcomes of studies that help our boards make informed decisions, it is in everyone’s best interest to take advantage of them, especially when the decision could have lasting consequences on a finite resource.”

Nebraska’s Great Outdoors 

Purposes and authorities assigned to Nebraska’s NRDs by law include developing and managing fish and wildlife habitat as well as parks and recreational facilities. NRDs often use the construction of flood control structures, soil and sediment control activities, or wildlife habitat enhancement projects as opportunities to expand recreational opportunities for the public. 

Located near the community of North Loup, the 1,140‑acre Davis Creek Reservoir is the highlight of a recreation area in Greeley and Valley Counties managed by the LLNRD and known for its dark skies, which facilitate stargazing, and its opportunities for hunting and fishing. Lunkers lurking here include walleye, yellow perch, wipers, and white bass. Successful anglers can prepare their catch at an onsite fish-cleaning station. The LLNRD built a new campground here in 2019, complete with security lighting, WiFi, and a coin-operated shower house. Nearby trails are open to horseback riding, hiking, and cross-country skiing. Picnic shelters, restrooms, and drinking water also are available. There are 42 new RV campsites with electrical service and 25 primitive campsites, including what may be the only elevated tent camping site in Nebraska that is fully accessible, compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and built specifically for campers who use wheelchairs. 

The LLNRD also owns and maintains Pibel Lake Recreation Area in Wheeler County. A diversion dam built on Clear Creek formed Pibel Lake in the mid-1890s. Named for early postmaster William Pibel, the lake became a popular recreation spot with a hotel and later a lodge. There’s much less development here today. Pibel Bible Camp, founded in 1939, still overlooks the lake. The LLNRD completed a major renovation of the 72‑acre recreation area in 2016 after ownership was transferred to the LLNRD from the State of Nebraska. Families enjoy a new playground on the south side of the 24‑acre lake and a recently installed footbridge and trail at the north end. Anglers hook largemouth bass, bluegill, and channel catfish. Pibel Lake Recreation Area offers camping, picnic shelters, restrooms, potable water, two handicapped-accessible fishing piers, and a boat dock. 

Adjacent to the district’s headquarters in Ord, the 11‑acre LLNRD Arboretum is home to a variety of native and nonnative trees and shrubs. The east side of the arboretum features a wetland viewing area. Picnic tables are positioned to the north. A paved trail loop completed by the LLNRD in 2013 connects to the community of Ord’s hike/bike trail. 

Conservation for the Next Generation 

Each Nebraska NRD has an information and education (I&E) department. These educators inform the public about policies; hold workshops, meetings, and other events; and conduct programs such as tree planting. While developing and conducting educational programs for adults is rewarding, many I&E staff members most look forward to working with children. Whether knee deep in a wetland teaching elementary students why wildlife needs clean water just like people do, conducting a winter bird count with families, or helping with land-judging and range-judging competitions, these professionals know that ecosystems benefit when youngsters learn about conservation early in life. 

Nebraska’s NRDs are sponsors of Envirothon, the largest environmental education competition in North America. The intent of the event is to develop future conservation leaders. Participants learn about soil and land use, aquatic ecology, wildlife, environmental issues, and forestry. Nebraska’s teams routinely score near the top of national rankings. 

ACE Camp, which stands for Adventure Camp about the Environment, is a 4-day outdoor experience that teaches students in sixth through eighth grade about aquatics, forestry, range, grassland, wildlife, soil, and land—and how to protect them. Exciting hands-on activities include ziplining, river float trips, games, and campfires. The LLNRD is one of many NRDs that offers scholarships for the event, which is held each June at the Nebraska State 4‑H Camp near Halsey. LLNRD staff lightheartedly argue among themselves over who gets to help with the camp. 

“Conservation education helps students of all ages understand and appreciate our natural resources,” says Larry Schultz, a 20‑year veteran of the LLNRD’s I&E department. (He is famous statewide for his water rocket activity, in which children launch recycled plastic bottles higher than the treetops.) “One of our slogans is, ‘Conservation for the next generation.’ We hope that by teaching children the importance of our natural resources, that they grow into adults who appreciate and understand how to protect them.” 

Alan J. Bartels is an information specialist at the Lower Loup Natural Resources District. For more about the LLNRD, visit llnrd.org.