Officials at the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District say declining groundwater levels have prompted changes in some of their rules.
The UBBNRD measures the district's groundwater levels every year, and if those levels get too low - to a point called an allocation trigger - rules about how much irrigation water farmers can use go into effect.
The water level in the York centered district is nearing the trigger point, and the UBBNRD board held a public hearing back in early November with a proposal of limiting farmers to 45 inches over 5 years, an average of nine inches per year.
Water Department Manager Rod DeBuhr says data shows that farms in the area used an average of seven inches per year over the last six years, and that's counting the drought of 2012.
But farmers spoke out at the November hearing, saying they wanted to see more water and a shorter allocation period.
At their December meeting the board compromised and approved an allocation plan that would give an average of 10 inches per year for three years. If groundwater levels are still low after the three year period, the originally proposed five year allocation rules would take effect. UBBNRD General Manager John Turnbull says the two allocation periods could fall back-to-back, or have years in between them.
"The end of the initial period, if the groundwater level is three feet above the allocation point, then there will not be an immediate follow-on allocation period, but if it has not recovered to that point, then we would go right into the five year," says Turnbull.
Low groundwater levels can impact private and community wells, and Turnbull says the UBBNRD has been watching them carefully for decades. With over one million irrigated acres, the UBBNRD is the heaviest irrigated district in the state.
"It effects 15 percent of the total irrigated land in Nebraska, so it effects a lot of operators and lot of acres. We want to sustain the groundwater level indefinitely into the future, and to do that we think it's necessary to have these regulations in place," says Turnbull.
The board also pushed their mandate for all wells to be metered back by one year to Jan. 1, 2016. However, if allocation begins, then that deadline would be moved up. Turnbull says those meters will have to be mechanical, not electric. But any electric meter put in before Feb. 1, 2014 will be grandfathered in.
Turnbull says the approved new rules will be a road map going forward, but says it's not the first time UBBNRD has modified regulations to fit changing needs.
"Since these regulations were initially adopted in 1979 we have changed them on the average of once every three years, so it's not a decision that's never gone back and looked at, we look at it regularly," he says.