By Ann Bleed
West of the 100th meridian, which bifurcates Nebraska, the availability of water determines the quality of life. In the last century Nebraska has been blessed with having enough water to meet our demands. Our challenge was that the water was not always in the right place at the right time. Precipitation and stream flows were highly variable, and although there was often ample rain and stream flow in the spring, in July and August when the water was needed to grow crops, water supplies were often lacking. With cooperation and ingenuity we built diversion dams and canals to deliver water to the right place and constructed reservoirs to store spring flood flows for later summer use.
Like most other western states in 1895, Nebraska also implemented the prior appropriation water rights doctrine. This “first in time, first in right” legal system allows a person with the older senior permit from the state to divert their full share of water, even if that would mean no water was available for a more junior right. Along with the irrigation canals and storage reservoirs, this legal system provided a modest level of certainty that there would be sufficient water for the existing uses. The development of deep ground-irrigation wells and the center pivot further increased our ability to get the needed water to the right place at the right time. These systems served Nebraska well and provided a sufficient water supply to allow Nebraska to develop and sustain a high quality of life on what was once called the Great American Desert.
The 21st century brings a new challenge. We still have the traditional need to retime and relocate our water supplies, but now we must also face the reality that our overall demand for water is reaching the limits of the supply. In addition to increasing water demands for agriculture, municipalities and industry, we now have more demands for water for recreation and a greater recognition of the need to provide water to maintain the state’s streams and wetlands.
At the same time, there is a strong possibility that the water supply in the future may be less than what we have come to rely on today. Analyses of historical tree-ring data indicate that the 20th century was one of the wettest in the last several hundred years and the 1980s were some of the wettest years of the last century. Is what we have come to expect as normal really an abnormally wet period? Add to this the prospect of global warming, and the challenges - of coping with increasing uncertainties related to both the overall availability of water supplies and the projections that global warming may cause larger variations in precipitation events - become even greater.
If we are to sustain a high quality of life for our grandchildren, we must insure that our demand for water does not exceed the supply. Achieving and maintaining a balance between our water supplies and use so that we can maintain the economic, social and environmental health, is in fact a key goal of the recently passed integrated management law in Nebraska. This law requires that the State Department of Natural Resources evaluates all the river basins of the state and makes a determination of which basins have reached the point where the water uses have reached the limit of the supply. In these fully appropriated basins, the development of any new consumptive use of water will take water away from an existing user. Allowing such a taking without compensation erodes the investments made by existing water users and decreases the certainty that water will be available for the use in the future. In basins such as the western portion of the Platte River Basin and the Republican River Basin, where we have already allowed water uses to exceed the long-term supply, we are now faced with the costly problem of having to reduce our existing uses of water.
In these basins where water uses exceed supplies, reductions in use are inevitable. The question is how will these reductions occur? If we don’t take steps to manage our use of the supplies, water supplies will dwindle and reductions will occur haphazardly. Such uncertainty will be extremely costly and will jeopardize the livelihood of our children and grandchildren. With management we can avoid some of this uncertainty, but the management will not be without cost. We may be able to develop ways to make more water available when and where water is in short supply. To do so means we must develop new infrastructure or enable the transfer of existing uses to new uses. Such management requires funding to build or to compensate the users who are giving up their use of water. Alternatively, we can, through regulations, restrict the amount of water that can be used. This alternative also comes with a cost; restrictions on water use also reduce the benefits expected from our investment.
To avoid borrowing from tomorrow’s generations, we must make wise management plans today. The new integrated management law establishes a process to make this happen. The determination that a basin is fully appropriated initiates a required planning process that recognizes both the interconnection between surface water and groundwater and the fact that the supplies of both are limited. The law also requires that the planning be done at both the state and local level with input from all with a stake in the outcome. As in the past, finding solutions acceptable to all will require effort, creativity and cooperation among competing interests. Although I do not see the need for drastic changes in our water laws, I do believe we will have to develop new water management systems. As with all our democratic processes, this will take time and patience, but in the end I am very optimistic that Nebraskans will rise to the challenge and preserve the “Good Life” for future Nebraskans.