The parties to a landmark Niobrara River Basin agreement continue to move forward together, setting a fine example of how Nebraska organizations can resolve a difficult issue when their interests come into collision. The agreement, signed in 2016, balances the interests of the Nebraska Public Power District, irrigators and the recreation industry along the Niobrara.
In the latest development, the Nebraska Public Power District has signed a follow-up agreement giving its generating facility near Spencer, and the accompanying water right, to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Niobrara River Basin Alliance, made up of four natural resources districts. The transfer will occur on or before Jan. 31, 2021.
Such cooperative action has resolved the disagreement that arose in 2007 when NPPD asserted a long-dormant water right on the Niobrara in order to maintain operation of the Spencer hydropower plant during a severe drought. Irrigators expressed concern over the utility's assertion of the water right, and tensions increased when the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources declared the river basin fully appropriated, halting new water allocations from the river.
Meanwhile, federal regulators insisted that wildlife species should receive protection because of the Niobrara's designation as a national scenic river. The basin's recreation industry wanted its interests to be taken into account amid multiple demands on the river.
After the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in NPPD's favor on the water-right issue, the natural resources districts in the basin approached the utility to negotiate a mutually agreeable resolution. The result is the Niobrara agreement, under which the Spencer facility will close, and NPPD will receive $9 million in compensation: $4 million from the NRDs; $1.5 million from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, through the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission; and $3.5 million from the state's Water Sustainability Fund.
A situation that once was rife with disagreements among Nebraskans has been resolved through responsible negotiation and cooperation.