Return flows vital to Platte River success
By SANDRA HANSEN
BRIDGEPORT — The North Platte River is holding its own in the Panhandle, thanks to its tributaries, and soon-to-be return flows from irrigation. The gains from these sources will increase the river’s volume enough to at least partially supply irrigators downstream as far as Lewellen.
According to Tom Hayden, superintendent of the Nebraska Water Office at Bridgeport, a lot will hinge on return flows from the major irrigation canals, once they begin running this weekend.
“So far, I’m keeping it wet to Lewellen,” Hayden said Thursday morning. “We started with 8 cfs (cubic feet per second) at the stateline at Henry, had 70 at the Morrill bridge, had gains of 30 from Sheep Creek and four at Horse Creek.”
With other contributions along the way, he managed to meet early irrigation demands on the river and still have 270 at the Lewellen gauge.
“I don’t have enough for a full load, but everyone is getting some water,” Hayden said of the results of his and his team’s management efforts.
He said another 100 to 150 will make it better for him and the farmers along the river, and he hopes to pick up that much when the Tri State Canal comes on this weekend for Farmers Irrigation District, and smaller districts to the east.
“The irrigators are working together and we’re happy to get as much as we have,” Hayden said. “With a drought, you can’t do much except fight it out.”
And Hayden remembers well the drought years of 2002-09, when the Platte was very close to dry between Bridgeport and Lewellen. “It wasn’t bare dry. There were little trickles here and there, but it was hard to build it back up again,” he said. At that time, everyone was shut off except the Minatare and Winters Creek irrigation systems because of their early priority dates.
Before those dry years, when even ground water supplies were reduced and allocations were applied to well users, Hayden said irrigators could fall back on those wells, and provide some return flow to the river. That isn’t the case anymore, he said.
“Now everything is allocated and that puts a bind on the irrigators,” Hayden said.
“But I think we can get through when we get return flow from the big canals. There won’t be an abundance, and some (producers) may get shut off, but that is how the first in time, first in right works.
“Right now, I’m really pleased,” he said.
That return flow will be especially crucial if the runoff forecast from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation office in Mills, Wyo., proves valid. The June 1 report indicates an April-July runoff of 365,000 acre-feet, a reduction of about 130,000 a-f from the May 1 forecast.
The June report shows storage in the North Platte Irrigation Project stands at 544,600 a-f, or 63 percent of the 30-year average. Total storage for all seven North Platte reservoirs is at 1,608,000 a-f, or 81 percent of the 30-year average.
Storage in each of the Inland Lakes is above average, ranging from 68 to 103 percent.
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