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Farmers' heads shake as big water project continues to growTell North Platte what you think
Photo by George Lauby
Burying the pipeline, Oct. 13
Courtesy Photo­Image
Map of two water projects (click on image to enlarge) - Lincoln Farm and Rock Creek. The route the water must take from Lincoln Farm to the Kansas border is shown by dots.
Courtesy Photo­Image
A closer look at map of the well field pipelines
Photo by Bulletin graphics
Larger map of route from well field.
Courtesy Photo­Image
The route of pipeline toward North Platte that is expected to be built during the summer.

The final leg of a new water pipeline in southern Lincoln County is bogged down, and residents nearby continue to shake their heads, wonder aloud and in some cases, get angry.

Construction workers are also frustrated, because the final leg of a 7-mile water pipeline is now bogged in underground water.

This report was first published in the Jan. 15 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.

Nate Jenkins, the assistant manager of the Upper Republican Natural Resources District that has taken charge of the “water farm” project, hopes the pipeline will be finished by the end of January.

If and when it is built, it would send Nebraska’s underground water toward Kansas. But to be useable, the pipeline has to run beneath two natural gas pipelines – the Rockies Express and the Trailblazer – that are buried more than four feet deep.

Digging below the gas lines, the crew hit underground water, compounding the job.

Natural underground water is seeping into the extra-deep ditch for the new pipeline, so more pumps are needed to pump water out and give the crew room to work.

Their intent was to finish the line by Dec. 31.

At the top end of the line, about seven miles north, 30 wells on the farm have been connected, equipped with new pumps and connecting lines have been pressured tested to check for leaks, Jenkins said.

When the first half of the “water farm” project is complete, it will route underground water into the Medicine Creek, where it will start a 165-mile trip to the Kansas.

The main pipeline stretches from the center of the “water farm” to the beginning of Medicine Creek on the north side of Nebraska Highway 23. Water will pour out of the 3.5 foot-inch diameter pipe onto a bed of rocks, and then run south down the creek, under the state highway and on across the land of dozens of farmers and ranchers.

When pumping begins, it will continue for the rest of the year, according to projections. Only heavy rains would stop it.

Sixty-thousand acre-feet will be pumped in 2014, Jenkins said -- enough to cover 93 square miles with a foot of water.

The unprecedented project has been in the works since late 2012, when it made jaws drop.

The 19,000-acre farm was taken out of crop production and converted to grass.

The total cost is pegged around $110 million.

The water is intended to fulfill requirements for minimum flows in the Republican River and later in the Platte River. The requirements are set in state and national agreements, proponents said.

But critics on both sides of the state border say the water will never get to Kansas. It will soak into the ground and evaporate.

Nearby residents know that when the creek swells, it will drown the grass that they relied upon for hay, and it might erode roads and the train tracks that cross the creek.

Dan Estermann, who lives about a mile and a half below the pipeline outlet, said the construction contractor is finally preparing to put bigger culverts at crossings to handle the water.

He said communication has been lacking.

“I got a call on Dec. 11 from someone who said the culverts would be installed in two weeks,” he said. “They didn’t leave a last name or a call-back number.”

Estermann then sent an email to Jenkins of the Upper Republican NRD, and reminded him that there was no easement agreement or other contract in place to cross his land.

He then received a proposed agreement a couple days later. He showed it to his attorney and decided it was not anything he wanted to sign. He said there were no provisions for unforeseen damages to his property.

On Dec. 19, a semi-truck loaded with culverts arrived at Estermann’s neighbor down the road, Gordon Duval, and a crewman asked where to get dirt to install culverts. Estermann said he called his attorney, who advised him to call the sheriff, which he did.

Estermann said several pickups and a loader were traveling with the semi-load of culverts. Most vehicles belonged to the contractor, but one belonged to Jasper Fanning, the primary director of the water project and the manager of the Upper Republican NRD.

Estermann said some of the culverts weren’t big enough to suit the landowners, so there was discussion about that, right there on the road.

Estermann said he finally lost his cool and told Fanning to stay off his property.

“It was a little surreal,” he said. “I didn’t think it would come to that. They seem content to set up the possibility of victimizing us and not caring. It seemed like they were just going to go ahead and put culverts in without any agreements. I think they were going to try to bluff their way through.”

“I basically told Jasper not to drop any culverts on my property and not to come back,” he told the Bulletin.

A few days later, the two men started talking again, but Estermann said he is still not comfortable. He is not sure what amount should be set for possible damages.

“We don’t know what our damages might be and they don’t either,” Estermann said.

“How do you know what to ask for, if you don’t know how much water will come down the creek, and you don’t really want it there in the first place?” he said.

Long route

If the pipe is installed, the water will run southeast down Medicine Creek for about six miles, across Estermann’s and his neighbors land, and into the Wellfleet Lake.

Denny McDaniels, who lives south of the lake near the Dancing Leaf Earth Lodge, wonders if the dam at the end of Wellfleet Lake will accommodate the extra water without trouble.

“No one can say if that old dam is going to be okay,” he said.

McDaniels, who is not altogether opposed to the project, said he asks questions but doesn’t get answers.

“This looks unorganized,” he said. “There’s a lot of growth in the creek bed that should have been cleared out last summer for this to work right.”

McDaniels said Jenkins and an engineer finally came to his farm Jan. 13.

“I showed them a crossing they didn’t even know was there,” he said. “Why are they just now engineering the route and getting leases? They are about ready to start pumping.”

Train crossings

Also, a railroad – the Nebraska-Kansas-Colorado (NKC) -- crosses the Medicine Creek in several places

The creek winds in an “S” shape and runs below the tracks frequently. The railway follows the creek for a total of nearly 25 miles, NKC manager Randy Matson said. The line handles farm products, mostly grain, throughout the year.

“Our concern is that influx of water doesn’t wash out the rails,” Matson said. “If they’ve done their studies properly, there shouldn’t be an issue.”

Matson knows of no major efforts to reinforce the rail bed or crossings.

McDaniels is concerned about a 150-foot-long trestle near his home that sits on the “spongy bed” of Opal Springs -- fresh water that naturally bubbles from the ground.

He said that trestle was reinforced during the summer, but he’s worried that it won’t be enough. He said Medicine Creek runs 2.5 feet deep all the time in his area now, and the “water runs right along the track bed.”

“I wonder who will pay for a new railroad if the trestle sinks,” he said.

McDaniels said a neighbor knows the water will drown a considerable amount of grass that he now puts up for hay to feed his cattle.

If the organizers have not fully considered the costs, and if something goes wrong, the costs will fall upon the landowners and the taxpayers, McDaniel said.

Jenkins said the new water will add about 80 cubic feet per second to the creek, raising the level to 100 cubic feet/second from its current average of 30 cfs.

On the 165 mile journey

From Wellfleet Lake, the water will run 40 miles to reach Harry Strunk Lake. If water passes through there, it will run another 15 miles to reach the Republican River near Cambridge.

From there it will run 50 miles east into the Harlan County Reservoir, and if it passes through the reservoir, it will have to run another 60 miles to get to the Kansas border.

Second project

The Lincoln County “water farm” is a bigger version of a project set up a year ago in the southwest corner of Nebraska. Near the little village of Parks, water near a natural spring called “Rock Creek” is tapped for the Republican River.

That project cost about $22 million.

The goal is to meet the long-standing agreement between Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, whereby each state agrees to only use up a fair amount of the river and lets a fair amount move on downstream.

Kansas says Nebraska is keeping too much, because irrigation wells pump water onto the crops that would otherwise feed the river basin. And, although terraced land on hillsides keeps land from eroding, the terraces also keep water from running into the river.

Kansans claim they are short-changed in a long standing agreement.

Nebraska officials say pumping the water out of the state’s underground aquifer is the best way to meet Kansas claims.

They say the only other thing Nebraska could do is stop irrigating some 100,000 acres, the equivalent of 150 square miles, to compensate for the loss of water, which would put many farms out of business and damage the agri-business companies that supply them.

Therefore, the Lincoln County water farm is underway.

The land, consisting of about 115 center pivots and wells, was purchased for about $82 million. The construction is costing another $27 million or so.

Bonds have been sold, which will be paid off by a $10/acre tax on all the irrigated acres throughout southwest as well as west central Nebraska for the next 30 years or so.

Jenkins: ‘Best alternative’

Jenkins has said Kansas should not complain even if the water doesn’t definitely reach its farms. Jenkins said just keeping the creek- and river-beds wetter, even 160 miles or so upstream of Kansas fields, will help more rain water flow downstream throughout the area.

Nebraska will be doing its part, he believes.

So, Lincoln County and surrounding area are investing millions of dollars and a portion of its treasured underground water to send water toward Kansas, whether it will help Kansas, or not.

Although McDaniels said he is trying to remain neutral, he said it is difficult.

To him, it just doesn’t seem right to pump clean underground water into the muddy creek and send it out of state, where it might not ever do much good, he said.

North pipeline begins to take shape

The construction of a pipeline north to the Platte River should begin in late summer, Twin Platte Natural Resources District manager Kent Miller said Jan. 15.

The tentative route of the pipeline is straight north to the South Platte River, Miller said. It would run 10-15 miles and end four miles west of North Platte.

That would mean the pipeline would be put under Interstate-80.

Miller said a previous idea of locating the outlet of the pipeline at Lake Maloney or the Sutherland Reservoir and using the discharge canal to channel water to the Platte River is still possible, but no arrangements have been set and “we need to get going.”

Miller wants to finish pipeline installation by the end of 2014 so water could start to flow into the Platte in 2015.

Miller said the cost of the pipeline is not set yet, but he expects the installation to be within the budget, which would be about $9 million according to earlier projections.

The water is intended to fulfill state and federal agreements to put more water in the Platte for fish and wildlife.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 2/1/2014
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