By Lori Potter, Kearney Hub
Holdrege - Limited mountain snow and an unusually warm March did more than cause flowers to bloom early. Those conditions also squeezed prospects dry for a good 2012 Platte Basin water supply.
"Nothing looks good," Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District Civil Engineer Cory Steinke told the Central staff and board of directors Monday. "No snow, warm temperatures, everything melted early and there was no late precipitation that we like to see."
The upper North Platte Basin snowpack that melts into Wyoming's Seminoe Reservoir was at 42 inches in 2011 and just 7 inches this year, Steinke said. Snowmelt projections for Glendo Reservoir had been at 120 percent early in March, but now are at 18 percent.
Federal Bureau of Reclamation officials in Wyoming now predict runoff at about 50 percent of normal for the basin, which could leave reservoirs half full at the end of the 2012 irrigation season. Steinke said that would make a full irrigation delivery uncertain for next year.
Lake McConaughy contained 1,432,800 acre-feet of water this morning, which is 82.2 percent of the maximum. Inflows were at 461 cubic feet per second, compared with 6,026 cfs a year ago.
Steinke showed a chart of May 7 inflows for the past years. The 540 cfs recorded Monday was the seventh lowest ever on May 7 and less than 10 percent of the high 2011 inflows. He said the high flows last May mostly were due to "spills" from upstream reservoirs in Wyoming to make room for additional snowmelt runoff.
This year's low numbers follow record Lake McConaughy inflows of nearly 2.63 million a-f in the water year from Oct. 1, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2011. "We're right back to drought levels for base flows," Steinke said, adding that he had projected lake inflows at about 1,000 cfs now. "We'll take our spills, and I love them when they come, but I'll focus on these base flows." "We need to buy you a new crystal ball," joked board member Robert Garrett of Minden. "There would have been no reason before mid-March to do anything different than we did," said CNPPID Natural Resources Manager Mike Drain.
Then came an extremely warm stretch of weather and dry conditions at a time when some of the more important snowfalls in the Rocky Mountains are expected. Steinke said today's farming practices that use water more efficiently and produce less runoff to the river are among the reasons for lower water supplies in all but exceptionally wet years. "We love our pivots," he said, but they do alter the water supply.
When Garrett asked if this year's conditions reflect an extension of drought after two wet years, Drain replied, "You might need to stop calling it drought. You might need to start calling it normal." "We're in pretty good shape," Steinke said, with Lake McConaughy down only 10 feet from a full reservoir, "but we'll put a good dent in that during irrigation season." The size of that dent at all North Platte Basin reservoirs will determine if there will be a full irrigation supply in 2013 and 2014, Drain said.
In other water reports Monday, CNPPID Irrigation Division Manager Dave Ford said that from spring 2011 to spring 2012, 71 percent of the district's 150 observation wells showed higher groundwater levels, with 65 percent increasing about 1 foot. Fifteen percent of the wells showed declines of less than 1 foot.
Comparisons of spring 2002 to spring 2012 show that groundwater levels were about 1.2 percent higher in 28 percent of the observation wells, while 62 percent were down around 1 foot. Ford said that reflects the multi-year drought that started in 2002 and said that depleted groundwater tables are starting to recover. "You get a little bit of a mixed bag depending on the location," he said about comparing 2012 levels to the base years of 1981-1985.
In the Elwood Reservoir area along Central's E65 Canal, some wells show groundwater increases of 15 feet. However, 41 percent of the wells measured - mostly in northern parts of Gosper, Phelps and Kearney counties - show depletions of 1.5 to 2 feet over that time. Meanwhile for 2012, Ford said, "Irrigation has started ... our canals continue to fill, and there is some use of pivots."
In other business, the board:
Set a special meeting on the district's strategic plan for 10 a.m. July 9 at the Super 8 in Holdrege.
Was reminded that the annual Nebraska water tour sponsored by the Kearney Chamber of Commerce, CNPPID, the University of Nebraska Water Center and U.S. Geological Survey, Nebraska Public Power District, and Omaha Public Power District, will be along the Missouri River July 17-19. Contact the Kearney Chamber's Jennie Nollette at 308-237-3168 for details.