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Archive for Monday, August 19, 2002

Drought puts towns, farms at odds about water usage

August 19, 2002

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One by one, the wells are drying up in western Nebraska's Cheyenne County.

Extreme drought is forcing desperate farmers to pump more and more groundwater to irrigate thirsty fields and keep their crops alive.

The drought has ravaged cities as well. In Sidney, two of nine municipal wells are expected to go dry in the next week, and others could become useless if water levels drop lower, leaving inadequate supplies for 6,200 residents to fight fires, drink, cook or even bathe.

"All the irrigation wells west of us are running dry, one by one, like a domino effect, and it is coming closer to us each day," City Manager Gary Person said. "They are now running dry within a mile of town."

The situation is forcing farmers and city-dwellers to compete over every drop of groundwater, and some wonder who will win and whether the state or courts will help decide.

"People realize that everyone is a neighbor in these situations, so they are trying to work through this difficult time," said Jack Daniel, who monitors public water supplies for the state.

With groundwater use in Nebraska is mostly unregulated by the state and controlled exclusively by local natural resources districts, courts could be the only recourse for cities and domestic well owners, said Ann Bleed, deputy director of Department of Natural Resources.

"We've heard concerns from domestic well owners whose wells have gone dry. They have asked, 'What can be done?"' she said. "If a domestic well owner sues an irrigation well owner, they very well could win."

Sidney's city manager doesn't think it should come to that, and he wants the state to step in and ensure that communities have enough water.

"Nebraska has to get dead serious about its water laws," Person said. "You can't blame the farmers for using the water. That's their livelihood."

"But if this drought continues, we're dead," he said.

The state has helped set up meetings between towns and resource districts to work out differences about water use, Daniel said.

Because of the drought, water levels are dropping in aquifers, including the massive Ogallala Aquifer, which is under much of Nebraska and parts of seven other states, including Kansas, from South Dakota to Texas.

The drawdown is so bad in southwest Nebraska, where the drought has lingered for years, that irrigators are pumping up water that has been under ground for more than 1,000 years, said Bob Hipple, general manager of the Upper Republican Natural Resources District.

"It's not that we will ever pump the aquifer completely dry, but it's getting more and more expensive to pump that water up as the levels keep falling," Hipple said.

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