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June – September 2018 Update

Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Partnership Update

The September Management Board Meeting will mark the end of an era.  This meeting will be the last for Gloria Erickson and Mike Onnen.  With the retirement of Greg Reisdorff and the transition to retirement for Gloria and Mike, the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Management Board will lose 63 years of institutional knowledge.  Mike was one of the authors of the concept plan for the Joint Venture, while Gloria is the longest serving private landowner on the Management Board.  It has been an honor to work with these conservation leaders my entire career.  If you get a chance, thank Greg, Mike and Gloria for their time, energy, and investment in the partnership.  They will not be easy to replace, but the Management Board will begin evaluating applicants after the September meeting. Below is a short synopsis of partnership activities.  Please contact the RWBJV office if you have questions or want more information.

Biological Planning & Conservation Design

Ecological Site Descriptions: Nadine Bishop and Doug Whisenhunt drafted an Ecological Site Description for Closed Upland Depressions, which will be part of Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Nebraska Field Office Technical Guide.  This document provides an overview of physiographic and ecological processes in closed upland depressions as well as a State and Transition Model describing vegetation response to different biotic and abiotic treatments.  The Closed Upland Depression Ecological Site Description is specific for playa wetlands in the Rainwater Basin.  The document has been shared with the Conservation Planning and Private Lands Workgroup for review.  Thanks go to Doug and Nadine for all of their hard work.  This document will complement the University of Nebraska Extension document that Drs. Heidi Hillhouse and Bruce Anderson are preparing that describes forage production, digestibility, nutrient content, and grazing strategies for wetland vegetation communities.

Groundwater Recharge Monitoring: The RWBJV has contracted with Duane Woodword to conduct a groundwater monitoring project to evaluate recharge in five Waterfowl Production Areas (Cottonwood, Funk, Johnson, Linder, and Victor Lakes).  This monitoring project will require the drilling of several additional monitoring wells, radar based water level loggers, and topographic survey data.  Monitoring will begin at Funk WPA this fall and continue at the other sites for the next several years.  The project will provide new insights into recharge rates, evaporation and transportation losses, as well as contribution of recharge to in-stream flow targets in the Platte River.

RWBJV Geospatial Portal Goes Live: RWBJV GIS Analyst Roger Grosse has coordinated with U.S. Geological Survey to develop a geospatial clearing house for the larger image datasets the Joint Venture has collected over the years.  The site contains numerous years of imagery for both the Central Platte River and Rainwater Basin.  The site can be accessed here.  The site also has some of the model outputs for a variety of the prioritization models developed by the RWBJV partnership.

Potential Impacts of Variable Rate Irrigation and Wetland Conservation on Net Farm Income:  A recently completed research project describes the potential net farm income benefits of Variable Rate Irrigation (VRI) within the context of the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP) wetland conservation program. Hannah Jones conducted this research as a part of her Master’s degree program in Community and Regional Planning at UNL. Drs. Zhenghong Tang, Karina Schoengold, Yunwoo Nam, and Dana Varner served on the project committee. The project report describes payback models, or the amount of time needed to break even on an investment, for a wide variety of scenarios to determine the profitability of potential projects. Results indicated that installation of VRI technology and enrollment in wetland conservation programs can be profitable investments in many situations. In particular, inclusion of grazing infrastructure can greatly increase profitability and offset other setbacks, such as unpredictable agricultural market prices. Information from this project can be used to help landowners make more informed decisions about enrolling wetland acres in conservation programs that include VRI. This project was funded by Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and, corporate partners, Lindsay and Valley.  Please contact Dana_Varner@fws.gov if you would like a copy of the final project report.

New Rainwater Basin Research Paper:  “Are Waterfowl Food Resources Limited during Spring Migration? A Bioenergetic Assessment of Playas in Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin,” was published in the journal, Wetlands, in June 2018. Travis Schepker, who recently completed his MS degree at the University of Missouri, co-authored the publication with Ted LaGrange (NGPC) and Dr. Lisa Webb (USGS - Missouri Coop Unit). Travis sampled seed and aquatic invertebrate foods at public, WRP, and private wetlands in the RWB. Although results indicated that seed biomass (kg/ha) was greater than expected, true metabolizable energy (kcal/kg) provided by those seeds was lower than expected for WRP and public wetlands. Additionally, available aquatic invertebrate biomass was about 40 times lower than that of seeds. Based on the data reported in this paper and current spring ponding frequency estimates, the energetic demands of waterfowl may only be met in 10% of years.  The full-length paper may be accessed online.

Primary funding for this project was provided by the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative, with additional funding provided by the Missouri Audubon Society, the Missouri Conservation Federation, and the Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Joint Venture partners Jeff Drahota (USFWS), Roger Grosse (RWBJV), and Ted LaGrange (NGPC) provided logistical and scientific support. This project was also made possible by the many private landowners who allowed access to their properties.

Water Levels Tracked on State Wildlife Management Areas:  After the completion of a recent research project in the western basins, NGPC and RWBJV teamed up to reuse some of the level-logger equipment in a new wetland inundation monitoring project. NGPC selected 12 WMA properties in the eastern basins to which to install the equipment, for the purpose of detecting and recording water levels several times a day. This information will be used to measure and compare the effects of supplemental pumping on water depths and ponding area. For more information, please contact Dana_Varner@fws.gov.

Communication and Outreach

Nebraska Cattlemen and Rainwater Basin Joint Venture host Local Affiliates: Nebraska Cattlemen and the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture staff hosted a meeting for the York–Hamilton local affiliate to highlight opportunities for area producers to integrate wetlands back into their farm operations.  Over 40 cattle producers attended the meeting, as did a member of the NE Cattlemen's state board of directors. As part of the event, the RWBJV did a well-received presentation about the partnership, habitat values of the Rainwater Basin for migratory birds, and opportunities that are available to area producers.  The RWBJV Working Lands Initiative was highlighted on Nebraska Cattlemen’s electronic publication, the Nebraska Cattlemen Insider.

Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program Mailing: The Private Lands Workgroup will be developing a mailing to area producers with 15 acres of hydric soils to highlight the Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program.  This program is part of the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which allows producers to maintain their water rights and pass pivot irrigation systems over acres enrolled in ACEP.  The mailing to promote the program is scheduled to go out mid-October when harvest is winding down and immediately after producers have assessed firsthand which of their farmed wetland areas weren’t profitable.

Regional Conservation Partnership Program Landowner Meetings:  The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, Upper Big Blue NRD, and Little Blue NRD staff continues to make phone calls to promote the “Divots in the Pivots” initiative.  This initiative is the whole field solution that focuses on wetland protection and restoration through easement options in the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).  The other part of this program comprises pivot upgrades that allow producers to improve irrigation components to maximize irrigation efficiency on adjacent cropland.  These upgrades are supported through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and partner funds.   As part of this marketing campaign, NRD and RWBJV staff have made more than 100 personal phone calls and had over 20 one-on-one landowner meetings.  These efforts have resulted in two applications in the Little Blue NRD and requests by ten producers for follow-up meetings with staff after harvest.


RWBJV Updates

New Farm Service Agency Representation on RWBJV Board: Longtime Farm Service Agency Management Board Member Greg Reisdorff retired in June.  Mike Bantam, the District Director out of Alma, will be the new Farm Service Agency Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Board Member.  Mike is a native Nebraskan with over 32 years of experience with the Farm Service Agency.  Mike’s first 25 years were spent as the County Executive Director in the Nuckolls County Office.  I am looking forward to working with Mike as we continue to develop a robust set of Conservation Reserve Program practices to help provide another tool in the wetland conservation toolbox.

Pheasants Forever Adds New Farm Bill Biologist Focused on Rainwater Basin:  Bryan O’Conner, a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, comes to the RWB region with experience working as a Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist in Northeast Missouri.  Originally from the Greeley, Nebraska area, Bryan holds a Bachelor of Science degree from UNL at Kearney with a Wildlife Emphasis.  Bryan worked a few seasons as a Conservation Technician for NGPC in the Kearney and Plattsmouth areas.  He also worked in Utah as a research assistant prior to moving to Missouri.  While in Missouri, he worked with CRP and EQIP, including the wetland management program CP23, and will hit the ground running.  Bryan will work out of the Grand Island USDA Service Center as the first Farm Bill Biologist to be housed in that area with a start date of September 24th.  Welcome to the team, Bryan!


Grant Updates

Cooperative Conservation Grant:  Nebraska NRCS awarded the RWBJV a $556,000 Cooperative Conservation Grant to add easement support capacity.  The funds will be used to hire two easement specialists and an administrative specialist that will support delivery of the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program in Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Central Area Region, which is roughly the same geography as the RWBJV Administrative Area.  These positions will be held by the Central Platte Natural Resources District.  The easement specialists will focus on easement monitoring, developing management plans, instituting grazing plans and assisting interested landowners with completing application packages.  The administrative specialist will ensure all paperwork is in place so management and restoration actions can proceed in a timely manner.

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Keystone Initiative Grant:  Grant activities associated with the recently awarded National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Keystone Initiative grant are coming together.  Funds from this grant were leveraged with a Nebraska Environmental Trust grant awarded to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to hire a Burn Boss.  After a nationwide search, TNC hired Chad Bladow to fill this position. Chad comes from the Indiana chapter of TNC with over 20 years of conservation implementation experience. Chad isn’t new to Nebraska; he worked at TNC’s Platte River Prairies as a technician and has led the TREX at Niobrara Valley Preserve for the past four years. Chad will be assisting RWBJV partners with implementing prescribed fire on private lands in north central Nebraska. Chad will be stationed at Niobrara Valley Preserve, but working primarily with partners on private lands in the Sandhills.

This grant also provided funding for spatially explicit Decision Support Tools to help guide program delivery.  The Working Lands for Wildlife Team formed a working group to evaluate existing tools and prioritize future investments in biological planning and conservation design.  Potential projects include prairie grouse lek surveys and eastern red cedar invasion threat assessments.

Nebraska Environmental Trust Grants: The RWBJV submitted two grants for the 2019 cycle.  The “Happy Cows; Happy Wetlands” grant requests funds to continue the RWB Working Lands Initiative.  This grant leverages partner funds for grazing infrastructure (perimeter fence, cross fence, livestock water) on private wetlands.  This grant also requests funding for two additional portable tub/chute/alley systems that will be managed by Tri-Basin and Upper Big Blue Natural Resources Districts.  These units will ensure producers can safely move animals between grass pastures and wetlands and should increase the ability to achieve desired stocking rates.

The RWBJV also submitted a Western Basin Recharge grant.  This grant would provide funding to complete restoration activities at Cottonwood, Funk, Johnson, Linder, and Victor Lakes Waterfowl Production Areas.  Grant funds will also be leveraged to conduct groundwater monitoring to better understand how Rainwater Basin wetlands contribute to groundwater recharge and instream flows in the Platte and Republican Rivers due to these activities.