(Posted 1/12/18) Playa wetlands in the western portion of the Rainwater Basin are important stopover sites for millions of waterfowl and the federally endangered Whooping Crane during both spring and fall migration. Recognizing the value of these wetlands, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) owns and manages 22 wetlands in the western Rainwater Basin. Nearly all of these wetlands are within Tri-Basin Natural Resources District (TB NRD). Land use in TB NRD is dominated by row-crop irrigation with about 100,000 acres of cropland irrigated by water diverted from the Platte River through the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District (CNPPID) canal and lateral network. This network provides a unique opportunity for supplemental water deliveries to several Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) owned and managed by the USFWS Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District (RWB WMD). In the past though, there were several challenges that made supplemental water deliveries to these wetlands problematic, including limitations with delivery infrastructure, timing of available water for deliveries, and the cost of surface water deliveries. Working together CNPPID, TB NRD, RWB WMD, and the RWBJV were able to develop a set of solutions to address these issues.
To begin the process, five WPAs were identified as priorities to provide habitat and facilitate groundwater recharge: Cottonwood, Funk, Johnson, Linder, and Victor Lakes. Engineers developed water delivery infrastructure modifications that will allow as much as 3,000 acre-feet of canal water to be delivered to these wetlands in a seven-day period. The upgrades were designed to both increase the volume of water delivered and to ensure surface water deliveries could be made by diverting water from the Platte after the annual target flows window for Whooping Crane migration closes (November 15th). A variety of upgrades were designed to increase capacity and reduce potential problems associated with cold weather canal operations. For the five properties a total of 23,300 feet of underground pipeline will be installed. A variety of valves, head gates, and energy dissipation structures are also required to achieve desired delivery capacity. Pipelines range in size from 36 inches in diameter at Funk WPA to 18 inches in diameter at Johnson WPA. The estimated cost for the infrastructure improvements is $1.3 million. The partners developed a Water Sustainability Fund grant application, which was submitted to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (NDNR) in July 2017. When NDNR staff reviewed the grant, they determined that this project could be directly funded by the Department through its Platte Over Appropriated Activities Committee (POAC) funds. Installation of the 36-inch pipeline at Funk has been completed. It is anticipated that infrastructure improvements at the other four properties will be completed in the fall of 2018. TB NRD has committed funding to pay for the surface water deliveries annually for the next three years.
This project highlights the ability of the RWBJV partners to coordinate efforts, identify opportunities for mutually beneficial projects, leverage funding resources, and quickly implement project elements. With construction already complete at Funk WPA, surface water agreements in place, and funding, there will be a significant increase in flooded wetland habitat for the birds, which will also provide groundwater recharge to the underlying aquifer.