It’s been more than seven decades since the gates of the Box Butte Dam were closed for the first time, storing water intended to help Sheridan County farmers be successful on Mirage Flats. Those living on the project have seen their share of hardships and joys, persevering through an often-inadequate water supply to carve out a life. And as the years passed, the potential for the reservoir and the Niobrara River to provide additional opportunities beyond farming was realized.
The Mirage Flats Irrigation District created in the 1940s was the second attempt at improving life of settlers in that area of western Nebraska after a failed irrigation attempt in the early 1900s. The second effort was a completed and water storage began Oct. 3, 1945; the district will celebrate that event’s 75th anniversary in 2020, but the project didn’t happen without dissent.
One of the earliest oppositions to creating the Mirage Flats Irrigation District came from the Nebraska Hydro Electric Power Company at Spencer. The irrigation district filed Application 3456 June 24, 1941, to store 47,670 acre-feet of Niobrara River water. The power company, however, protested the move, saying the dam would interfere with its rights to water from the river to generate power. The Spencer plant had a 1923 application for the appropriation of 1,450 cubic feet per second of water.
In Nebraska, surface water is allocated through a first in time, first in right preference, said Pat O’Brien, director of the Upper Niobrara White Natural Resource District. There is also a priority system based on domestic use, agricultural use and manufacturing, in that order. The competing needs and rights often require the creation of a subordination agreement between parties, O’Brien said.
The Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in charge of constructing the Mirage Flats Irrigation District, eventually reached an agreement with the Nebraska Hydro Electric Power Company. In exchange for the Bureau of Reclamation’s agreement to pay for any lost power production, the Spencer-based plant withdrew its protest.
In 2015, NPPD announced it would decommission the Spencer plant by 2017, and a $9 million agreement between NPPD and the Nebraska Game and Parks, along with five Natural Resource Districts, was arranged to grant the management of the water rights to the NRDs and G&P for agricultural, recreational and wildlife conservation uses. The agreement called for the Spencer Dam gates to be removed to allow the river to flow freely.
Flooding on the Niobrara River earlier this year, however, has complicated the purchase agreement. The Spencer Dam was breached March 14, releasing an 11-foot wall of water and causing catastrophic damage.
The purchase agreement for the Spencer Dam was approved contingent on the availability of funding, and to date no money has exchanged hands, O’Brien said. The project is now on hold while the dam’s failure is evaluated, with the entities involved recognizing that any purchase agreement may need to be reworked, he said.
“The landscape is significantly changed,” O’Brien remarked.
The creation of the NRDs themselves also had an impact to some degree on the farmers in Mirage Flats. Everett Rincker, who settled on the project in 1949, remembers only one year when the water stored in and released from Box Butte Reservoir was enough to provide the promised one and a half acre-feet of water. It became apparent early on to farmers on the Flats that they would have to supplement the Niobrara River irrigation water with that from wells.
“By 1960, just about everyone had a well,” Rincker said.
The NRDs were created in response to the heavy pumping of groundwater in the state, an effort to protect that natural resource. On Mirage Flats, groundwater was a supplemental source, and Rincker said he doesn’t believe the limits placed on farmers by the NRD there were ever too restrictive.
“It has made us better irrigators. We don’t waste water,” he said.
Advancements in technology have aided the Mirage Flats farmers in conserving water and directing it to where its most needed. A former Mirage Flats Irrigation District board member, Rincker noted that irrigation techniques were pretty antiquated when the project began as farmers first used lathe boxes before moving on to siphon tubes to transfer water from the ditches to their fields.
“I carried thousands of tubes up and down those ditches,” Rincker said.
When eight-inch gated pipes came on the scene, “we thought we were in high clover,” he continued. Today, most farms make use of center pivots.
“That was the big advancement – the method of running water,” Rincker said.
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For all the advancements in providing irrigation water for Mirage Flats farmers, the project did create issues for other property owners who continue to battle the challenges today. Brian Iodence’s ranch is downstream from Box Butte Reservoir, near the Dunlap Diversion Dam and split by the district’s canal.
The design of the irrigation project means water stored at the reservoir is eventually carried downstream in the Niobrara River’s channel when it’s released. As the water nears the diversion dam the flow slows so it can be diverted into the canal.
“Rushing water carries silt and slow-moving water drops silt,” Iodence said. “That silt has to go somewhere.”
Compounding the problem is the growth of cattails in the shallow slow water, further restricting the river’s flow. The channel of the river has been so eroded over the decades that it’s now 50-100 yards wider across Iodence’s ranch than it was when he was a child.
For decades, the district’s only solution to the problems caused by the silt was to open the headgates and flush it down river, he said. Today, the district dredges the silt out of its canal and at the site of the diversion dam to keep the irrigation water moving, but that hasn’t alleviated Iodence’s issues with the river channel and cattails on his property.
“The silt problem is a continuous problem,” he said. “As long as they rush water down the river it’s going to erode the bank.”
He estimates he’s lost at least 120 acres of grazing land along the river over the years as the river has spread out. In an attempt to make the best of the situation, he and his wife, Carol, applied for a 404 permit to build a dam on their property, creating a three to four-foot lake instead of a six-inch swamp. They stock it with fish, and have worked with Game and Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and the NRCS on conservation projects to create wildlife habitat. Their business, Shared Outdoors, includes an RV park, a venue for weddings or reunions and a lodge to provide opportunities for fishing and hunting.
“We tried to make up for the lost revenue,” Iodence said.
Recreational opportunities exist elsewhere on the project, most notably, of course, at Box Butte Reservoir, which draws thousands of visitors each year. Though it was constructed with irrigation as its only priority, an April 1964 management agreement between the Nebraska Game and Parks and Bureau of Reclamation allowed G&P to develop the 2,212 acres of recreation space as a state recreation area, a wildlife management area and a fishery.
Prior to a 1990 agreement between G&P, the Bureau of Reclamation and the irrigation district, all the water in the reservoir was delivered to irrigators each year, the most drawdown of any lake in the state, which often created a mud hole in the fall. After the agreement was signed, the irrigation district began releasing six inches of water to producers consistently year-after-year. The G&P pays to retain a certain amount of water in the reservoir, and consistent water levels made it possible for the agency to implement its Resource Management Plan, first approved in 1985, to develop recreation on the reservoir.
Box Butte Reservoir is a popular fishing destination today, home to numerous Master Angler awards since 2013. According to Game and Parks, a large variety of fish benefit from more stable water levels, including bluegill, yellow perch, northern pike, walleye, largemouth bass, channel catfish, black crappies, rock bass, smallmouth bass, some carp and European rudd. Brown and rainbow trout previously could be caught at the lake as well.
Special regulations at Box Butte make fishing for northern pike particularly attractive, as the bag limit is 10, with a slot restriction, compared to three elsewhere in the state. Underwater spearfishing is also a pastime at Box Butte, with a season that begins a full month earlier than the rest of Nebraska; nine state records have been set at the reservoir.
Food plots in the WMA help attract deer, pheasant, rabbit, squirrel and turkey, and hunting is allowed. The Game and Parks has also converted 10 acres from brome grass to pollinator-friendly plants to attract bees and butterflies. Birdwatchers can enjoy common loons, ferruginous hawk, eastern bluebird, eastern wood-pewee, indigo bunting and wood thrush.
Improvements at the reservoir continue. A new toe drain was installed in 2018, the first replacement of the structure since the dam was originally constructed; toe drains collect water seepage to move it downstream to protect earthen dams from water saturation. While the water level was lowered for the project, G&P installed a new boat ramp with two 16-foot lanes. The agency also made improvements in the parking lot. Game and Parks and Bureau of Reclamation dollars will also install a new precast concrete vault toilet and a 30x60-foot storage building in the future, said Justin Haag, public information officer for G&P.
The 1990 agreement responsible for expanding recreational opportunities at Box Butte expires April 30, 2020. Negotiations are underway to renew the agreement, Haag said. Balancing the needs of agriculture, recreation and wildlife is always a delicate act, but an important one in order to provide for farmers and outdoor opportunities for area residents and tourists.
“I think it brings people a lot of enjoyment,” Haag said.