HOLDREGE — Landowners in eastern Phelps and western Kearney counties whose fields were flooded last July will decide if drainage improvement projects in the North Dry and Lost Creek watersheds move forward.
After a public hearing at Tuesday’s Tri-Basin Natural Resources District board meeting in Holdrege, the directors voted to set the areas’ boundaries and authorized a referendum by landowners who would receive project benefits.
Tri-Basin General Manager John Thorburn said the mailing likely will be sent at the end of February. There is a 30-day voting period, which means results should be know around April 1.
The projects involve 22,314 acres in the North Dry Creek watershed in Phelps and Kearney counties, and 10,596 acres in western Kearney County’s Lost Creek watershed.
In August, landowners in those areas asked for Tri-Basin’s help to resolve flooding issues that peaked in July, but have been seen during the years to lesser extents with far less rainfall. They submitted signed petitions in September that started the drainage improvement process.
Units of benefit are assigned to each property, proportional to the amount of land and project benefits. The votes will be on units, not individual properties or landowners.
There also are per-unit assessments based on land use — irrigated cropland, dryland, rangeland — which determine shares of payments to reimburse Tri-Basin for any project construction and maintenance costs.
Prior to the board votes Tuesday, Thorburn said that if the drainage improvement areas move forward, there will be added expenses to hire engineers to assess the flooding issues and identify project options.
“This is beyond my ability to design things,” he said, noting that NRD staff have done the design work on existing drainage improvement areas in Phelps and Kearney counties. “... These two are a lot bigger and a lot more complicated.”
Engineering expenses could be part of landowner assessments, Thorburn said, but that will be up to the Tri-Basin board to decide.
Another issue is how a project to get upstream North Dry Creek water to the Platte River more quickly will affect the existing downstream North Dry Creek project.
Dave Raffety of Kearney, a Tri-Basin director and North Dry Creek Drainage District member, said the current IPA system was full during the 2019 floods, so landowners in that area are concerned about seeing more water heading to the same river access point southwest of Kearney.
Thorburn told the Hub that if the referendum is approved, the next steps would be to hire an engineer and develop a steering committee of landowners to advise on project priorities. When a design and cost assessment are done, the Tri-Basin board still would decide if projects move forward.
Meanwhile, annual meetings for established drainage improvement areas were scheduled for Feb. 28 — 9 a.m. at the Axtell Community Center for Kearney County projects and 1:30 p.m. at the Tri-Basin office in Holdrege for Phelps County projects.
Little Blue water plan
Also at Tuesday’s board meeting, there was a public hearing on approving the integrated water management plan for Tri-Basin’s Little Blue watershed in eastern Kearney County.
Thorburn and Nebraska Department of Natural Resources Integrated Water Management Analyst Amy Zoller testified in favor of the plan developed by Tri-Basin and DNR.
Terry Sorensen of Minden, a farmer and landowner in the Little Blue watershed, said the original intent was to bring together plans for Tri-Basin and the Little Blue NRD that would address different groundwater management requirements on the two sides of the Kearney-Adams county line.
Sorensen said that while Little Blue NRD stakeholders involved in the process agreed to that approach, the Little Blue board did not. “I think the intent of this IMP was to come together and we didn’t,” he added.
At Tri-Basin’s January board meeting, Sorensen told the Hub a gap remains between the two NRDs’ water management philosophies to address groundwater declines, even though farmers share the same water basin.
Thorburn said Tuesday that Sorensen is correct about the original intent to have more compatible plans for the two NRDs.
The law requires each NRD to have its own plan, he said, but the process was studied in tandem. Then the Little Blue board “decided to go in a different direction.”
“That’s a disappointment for us,” Thorburn said, “but we’re trying to still work together ... with a common understanding to manage resources.” He added that a positive step is working together on a University of Nebraska-Lincoln geology study to learn more about the Little Blue watershed.
Also at Tuesday’s public hearing, Sorensen said, “I’m for this board approving this IMP. I’m proud of it. But I don’t want DNR to accept it on both sides.”
Zoller confirmed to the Hub that the Little Blue NRD plan already was approved by that board and by DNR last summer.
The Tri-Basin board decided Tuesday to table action on the Tri-Basin plan until its March 10 meeting. In the meantime, board members and staff will meet with eastern Kearney County landowners on Feb. 19 at Tri-Basin’s Holdrege office.