When a banker gets involved we know we are in trouble.

A view of the Platte River as seen from the observation tower on Thursday, August 2, 2012 at Eugene T. Mahoney State Park in Ashland, Neb. The prolonged hot weather of the summer has lead to dramatically low levels of water on the river. (FRANCIS GARDLER / Lincoln Journal Star)

3 hours ago • Art Hovey/Lincoln Journal Star
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North Bend banker Tom Wolf has lived next to the Platte River for 38 years and crosses it every day on his way to work.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this low,” Wolf said earlier this week from a vantage point about 65 miles northwest of Lincoln.

Without water entering upstream from the Loup River, he said, “I doubt if we would have any water in the Platte whatsoever.”

Even in non-drought years, the Platte has a history of going dry upstream from the Loup at Columbus. But one sign of this year’s extreme drought is that the Loup and Elkhorn rivers, which normally replenish the flows visible from the Interstate 80 bridge between Omaha and Lincoln, have been reduced to trickles of their normal selves.

That’s putting the pinch on Lincoln’s 260,000 residents, because they get their water from wells sunk next to the Platte near Ashland.

Jerry Obrist, chief engineer for the Lincoln Water Department, is monitoring these developments about as closely as a new mother monitors her first born.

“The flows are paralleling what we had in 1955,” Obrist said Friday, “and that goes back to when I was 11 years old.”

Computer modeling is one way to stay on top of the situation. But that isn’t a great source of comfort right now.

“We don’t have any modeling under 200 cubic feet per second,” he said, “and it looks like that’s where we’re headed.”

The daily drought drama will end at some point. But it’s also calling attention to an ongoing situation in which the growing populations of the state’s two largest cities are competing for a finite water supply with irrigators in the Loup and Elkhorn river basins.

Especially this year, the heavy irrigation pumping that keeps crops watered in dry times is cutting into surface flows downstream and into the saturation in adjacent well fields used by both Lincoln and Omaha.

Omaha has put in dozens of wells both upstream and downstream from Lincoln’s over the past 10 years.

Ann Bleed, a Lincoln resident who stepped down as director of the Department of Natural Resources in 2008, said irrigators and municipalities need a more coordinated plan.

“Droughts don’t come this year and then not again next year,” Bleed said, citing her years of poring over water data in the state. “They tend to come in twos and threes — two or three years in a row.”

A crisis in which demand overwhelms supply might not be that far off.

“The real question is going to be how we deal with this situation in the future,” Bleed said. “And what kind of integrated management plan should be put in place to try to meet all the demands in a dry period?”

Buying up irrigation rights may be a direction Lincoln will have to go, Bleed said.

“You go to some areas and you say to Farmer Brown, ‘We’d like to pay you a certain amount of money every year for the right to shut down your well if we need to maintain flow in the river.’”

It appeared that a solution of sorts to long-term water security had been found in 2008, when Brian Dunnigan, Bleed’s successor at the Department of Natural Resources, ruled that the Lower Platte River Basin was fully appropriated.

That means Dunnigan had concluded that water supply and demand in the Lincoln area had reached an equilibrium point and no more new uses in or outside agriculture could be added without curtailing existing use.

But that decision, tied to the 2004 passage of sweeping water reforms by the Legislature, led to a firestorm of protest from irrigators. It was reversed after Dunnigan cited errors in computing water use.

On Friday, he wasn’t willing to be drawn into a discussion about what should happen if the water situation in the Lower Platte area gets tighter and somebody has to choose between agricultural and municipal use.

He called that “a great question” for natural resources districts, which regulate groundwater use, and other water interests.

In some cases, NRDs are stepping up to address the challenge. For example, members of the board of directors of the Lower Elkhorn at Norfolk decided last month they wouldn’t allow any new irrigation wells in the high-impact area along the river next year.

Wells close to rivers are the ones that have the most influence in diminishing surface flows.

Although Lincoln is in an area where the water demands of people and crops are especially high, the condition of rivers and streams across the state is almost universally poor this year.

The U.S. Geologic Survey presides over the proof at the Nebraska Water Science Center in Lincoln.

Ten of the 60 long-term stream gauges it relies on for flow updates had no flow at all in early August.

About 20 percent of those gauges have met or exceeded low-flow records for a seven-day period. In all cases, that covers a time period of at least 30 years and in some cases, it covers more than 100 years.

Bob Swanson, director of the Water Science Center, said his personal involvement with the flow measures goes back to 1978.

“This is one of the driest years I can remember,” he said. “In my career, I’ve made (only) a couple measures that were lower on the Lower Platte.”

Some river watchers are predicting the Platte will be dry by the end of summer all the way from Gothenburg through Kearney and Grand Island to Columbus, a distance of about 180 miles.

That’s not a situation easily resolved, Swanson said.

“We need some really good soakers is what we need.”

But for now, Jerry Obrist is one of many trying to stretch out a shrinking resource.

“The key is we can’t run down to nothing,” he said, “because I think we’ll need water this fall and winter. So we’ve got to leave something.”

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