Nebraska panhandle farmers like the sight of snow in the mountains | TSLN.com

Nebraska panhandle farmers like the sight of snow in the mountains

Eric Brown
for the Fence Post

An irrigation pivot watering a field

There's a long way to go before the irrigation season begins, but water providers and users in western Nebraska are liking what they're seeing so far.

They just need to see more of it, they say.

Producers in the state's panhandle – particularly those west of Lake McConaughy – mostly pull surface irrigation supplies from a system of reservoirs in eastern Wyoming along the North Platte River.

At the end of December, the seven main reservoirs along the river, which include the Seminoe and Pathfinder, were collectively only filled to 72 percent of historic levels for that time of the year, according to a report from the Bureau of Reclamation Office in Mills, Wyo.

On the bright side, though, there's plenty of snow in the surrounding mountains, much of which will melt in the spring to refill those reservoirs, or flow downstream to other water users in need.

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Wyoming, the snow year, which dates back to late fall, is off to a solid start, with total precipitation for the Upper North Platte River Basin on Thursday at 106 percent of the historic average for that date, with its snow-water equivalent at 104 percent of average.

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Downstream, numbers were even better.

In the Lower South Platte River Basin, precipitation was 131 percent of average last week, while the snow-water equivalent was 120 percent of average.

Farmers in western Nebraska were quick to point this week, though, that it will be the traditionally heavy snow months of March and April that play a bigger part in water supplies for the upcoming growing season, as is the case every year.

But they'll certainly take what looks to be a solid start to 2014.

Having adequate water in storage for the growing season is critical to the many irrigation districts in western Nebraska and their farmers.

In times of little water in reservoirs, farmers are forced to pump more groundwater – out of an underground aquifer that water users are trying to preserve – or farmers are forced to plant less crops.

Additionally, the amount of water that's available in far western Nebraska impacts those further downstream – like those east of Lake McConaughy, as was explained by Cory Steinke, a civil engineer with the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District in Holdrege.

Return flows from water users in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska eventually make their way to Lake McConaughy – a source that supplies surface irrigation water for many farmers to the east of the reservoir.

"What happens in the mountains doesn't have a direct impact on what we do here, like it does in the panhandle, but it can impact us," Steinke said.

The ideal situation, Steinke said, is when reservoirs in eastern Wyoming are already full and mountain snowmelt in the spring takes a more direct route to Lake McConaughy, where water levels, as of Thursday, were only 54 percent of historic average, although that's fairly normal for the past decade, with the exception of 2011, which was a banner water year in Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado, Steinke noted.

Surface water that also makes its way to western Nebraska farmers comes from the South Platte River. Water supplies in the South Platte River Basin, which originates in Colorado, are heading into 2014 at solid levels – a much better situation than seen during the past couple years.

A snowpack survey from the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Colorado released this week – the first comprehensive report since June – showed that snowpack in the mountains of that basin on Jan. 1 was 99 percent of historic average, and collective reservoir storage levels were slightly above normal, at 105 percent of average.