Keeping watch on the Niobrara

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Rocky Ford on the Niobrara on Oct. 5, 2007. (Melvin Thorton)

By Bruce Kennedy

Most Nebraskans visit the Niobrara River in the summer, for leisurely float trips through a scenic landscape. But decisions that affect whether you can continue to make such float trips, and whether that landscape will remain so scenic, are made at all times of the year. Sometimes, as now, they are made during late winter in the faraway corridors and galleries of the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln.

The Niobrara River begins as a stream in eastern Wyoming, flowing 560 scenic miles across the northern part of Nebraska before emptying into the Missouri River. As it traverses the state, it provides scenery and biological diversity of national significance. Six ecological systems meet and mix along a 30-mile stretch of the river east of Valentine. As the Niobrara enters this canyon area, it takes on some of the characteristics of a mountain river. At the Norden Bridge, as it flows through rock formations, it enters the more hilly flat country and takes on the characteristics of a typical prairie river. Nebraska Life magazine recently listed the Niobrara as one of the eight natural wonders of Nebraska.

From the time that humans first set foot in the Niobrara valley, there have likely been conflicts over land, water and territory. Conflicts today center around the river’s water use. Those that see its waters as useful for irrigation development wish to divert them for agricultural use. Others seek to secure adequate flows for fish, wildlife and recreation. One must remember that without these adequate flows, the Niobrara would not be the beautiful river that we love nor would it be the source of the biological diversity or recreational pursuits we have come to appreciate.

The Niobrara from Sharps Western Campground, Oct. 5, 2007. (Melvin Thorton)Much irrigation development has already occurred in the Niobrara River Basin. The early settlers of the Sand Hills in the Gordon/Rushville area envisioned the Mirage Flats Irrigation Project. Jules Sandoz, of “Old Jules” fame, was skeptical of these efforts. He pointed out to the early proponents of this irrigation project, known as Mirage Flatters, that “several extra grizzlies needed to be thrown in to keep work going on this project since it had very little capital.” Box Butte Reservoir, a key component of the project, was built; and in 1946 it began to deliver Niobrara River water to about 11,650 acres of cropland. Although the reservoir has a storage capacity of 11,125 acre-feet, it very rarely fills to capacity; so nearly all of its irrigation water is diverted away from the Niobrara. The stretch of river currently being studied for fish, wildlife and recreational flow includes the 330 miles of river below the Mirage Flats river diversion, from Box Butte Reservoir to the confluence with the Missouri River.

In 1966, Merritt Reservoir began delivering Snake River water to irrigate about 35,700 acres of crops in the Ainsworth area. Since the Snake River is a major tributary of the Niobrara, Niobrara flows have thus been diminished between Valentine and Ainsworth.

The O’Neill Irrigation Project was authorized by Congress but never built. The planned Norden Dam would have flooded many miles of the Niobrara Valley and would have backed up water some 20 miles, almost to Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. The Save The Niobrara River Association, a group which included ranchers from the area as well as concerned citizens from all over the state, informed the public of the disastrous environmental effects and potential great expenses of this project through an extensive public education campaign. The O’Neill project was shelved when a more environmentally friendly and less costly alternative was developed, but the alternative was not built either. Now, Friends of the Niobrara, Inc., the successor to Save The Niobrara River Association, is a statewide citizens group that works with many state and federal entities to educate the public about the need to protect the Niobrara’s natural beauty and environmental integrity.

Sen. J. James Exon of Nebraska saw the Niobrara as a national treasure, calling it the Jewel of the North. He persuaded his colleagues in the United States Senate to include portions of the Niobrara in the nation’s Wild and Scenic River system, which was accomplished on May 24, 1991. The National Park Service has developed a Management Plan for the 76 miles of the Niobrara designated as a National Scenic River. Given that this level of protection now exists for the river, the general public may think the work is done and the Niobrara has been protected; but the fact remains that most of the land along the river is still in private ownership and is still subject to development, and the river’s flows are still coveted by development interests.

In this Oct. 5, 2007 photo, spectacular Stairstep Falls empties into the Niobrara near Fritz's Island. (Melvin Thorton)All Nebraskans take pride in our National Scenic River. But sometimes one gets the feeling that the only people with a voice in its management are those who live in close proximity to the river. This notion is just simply not true. Our federal taxes pay for the National Park Service budget, which allows for management of the river; and the Niobrara Council is supported by state and federal funds. All Nebraskans and all citizens of the United States are stakeholders on this stretch of the Niobrara River.

Several bills have been introduced in the Unicameral that would harm the values of the Niobrara that Nebraskans cherish. LB 438 is still alive in the Unicameral. This bill would make it almost impossible for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) to preserve stream flows for fish, wildlife and recreation in basins that are fully appropriated. LB 666, also alive, seeks to weaken the authority of the Niobrara Council, which has done many good things for the river. Even as they ask for more diversions and oppose meaningful effort to protect river flows, proponents of these bills claim that “We wouldn’t do anything to harm the Niobrara.” However, the evidence suggests otherwise. Both the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World-Herald have called for increased levels of protection of land and water in the Niobrara basin.

Recently studies indicate that flows of 460 to 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) provide acceptable recreational floating, and flows of 600 to 900 cfs give an optimal experience. Unfortunately, in the past several years, July and August flows have often been below 500 cfs. Thus, additional diversions of water upstream will adversely affect recreation on the Niobrara. To the city of Valentine, this is economically critical. A 2009 economic study has estimated the economic impact of recreational floating on the Niobrara to be over $10 million annually. The study also indicated that if the river flows did not decrease, this economic impact would be likely to increase.

Irrigation permits from 1871 through 2006 allow diversions of 463 cfs, enough water to irrigate 32,725 acres. However, in a six-month period after the Nebraska Game and Parks began studies to support an instream flow application, there were 12 applications for additional diversions of 66 cfs, enough for irrigating 4,609 acres. This amounts to as much water as was granted in the previous 12 years. Currently, these applications are still pending. In addition, more groundwater well applications for irrigation were made. This spike in irrigation requests and the possibility of reduced flows caused American Rivers to designate the Niobrara as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in 2008.

No new permits can be issued while the basin is declared fully appropriated. Why, then, is there concern about more Niobrara River water being taken out? The fully appropriated designation could be dropped. Also, when a river system has been deemed fully appropriated, state law calls for an Integrated Management Plan (IMP). Even so, “fully appropriated” does not mean “fully protected” for our fish and wildlife or recreation. If all stakeholders, including fish, wildlife and recreation interests, are not at the table to help with the IMP, as would be the case if LB 666 were to pass, stream flows could still be reduced to the point that would seriously jeopardize these interests.

The thought seems to exist that we can continue to take flows out without impairing the river. This is simply not true.

Because of the cumulative effect of diversions from the river, Mirage Flats, Merritt Reservoir and groundwater pumping, the balance now is very precarious. Further depletions will affect recreation, may affect fish and wildlife and will take away from the overall character of the river. Integrated Management Planning should continue; and fish, wildlife and recreation interests from throughout the state need to be part of this planning process.

In short, LB 483 and LB 666 would make it more difficult to protect the Niobrara.

Fortunately, Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln has introduced LB 1025. This bill would make it possible for the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources to accept and act upon applications for nonconsumptive water rights even in fully appropriated basins. Upon passage, it would allow the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to initiate actions to provide adequate stream flows for fish, wildlife and recreation in and on the Niobrara. Those of us who advocate healthy streams and rivers should support our Game and Parks

Commission in its efforts to secure adequate stream flows for fish, wildlife and recreation and support LB 1025. LB 1025 will not affect current water rights in place on the Niobrara River. It will simply give qualified entities the ability to secure instream flows for the public interest.

Though summer seems far off, your ability to float the Niobrara River on those hot summer afternoons could well be decided by decisions that get made in the cold of a late winter day in Lincoln.

 

For more information on the Wachiska Audubon Society, visit http://www.wachiskaaudubon.org or e-mail wachiska office@cornhusker.net.

More information on the Niobrara River may be found at http://www.nps.gov/niob/index.htm or http://www.ngpc.state.ne.us/boating/guides/canoe trails/canoe-nio.asp.

 

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