The Value of the Water in the Nebraska Sandhills

The Nebraska Sandhills is an incredible landscape of nearly 12 million acres of prairie.  Most of the Sandhills consists of privately-owned ranches, and the majority of that land is conservatively managed by ranchers trying to make a living on top of vegetated sand dunes.  Sandy soil, rough terrain, and drought-prone climate all present major challenges to ranchers, as well as to the plants and animals living in Sandhills prairie.  On the other hand, the Sandhills rewards all its inhabitants with one very important and abundant resource.

Groundwater.

Exposed groundwater in the valleys between sand dunes creates some of the most beautiful and valuable wetlands in North America.

Exposed groundwater in valleys between sand dunes creates some of the most beautiful and important wetlands in North America.

Very little of the rain that falls on the Sandhills runs off.  Instead, it percolates down into the sandy soil where most is taken up by roots of thirsty plants.  A significant portion of that water, however, makes it past the root zone of those plants and adds to the water table below.

Gr

A shallow water table makes it easy for windmills to pump water into tanks (and overflow ponds) for livestock and wildlife to drink from.

Large wetlands and shallow lakes are abundant across many parts of the Sandhills where the water table is higher than the surface of the ground, and those wetlands provide habitat for a broad array of wildlife and wetland plants.  Groundwater also seeps out of the ground and flows into myriad streams and rivers, which provide even more habitat.  Those streams also carry water through and out of the Sandhills and into larger rivers such as the Niobrara and the Platte.

Springs pop out of the Sandhills in numerous locations, creating small streams that supply water to fish, wildlife, and plants, as well as to larger rivers. This stream is already 5 feet wide less than 50 yards from its source in the background of this photo.

Springs pop out of the Sandhills in numerous locations, creating streams that supply water to fish, wildlife, and plants, as well as to larger rivers. This stream is already 5 feet wide less than 50 yards from its source in the background of this photo.

The Niobrara River

A long stretch of the Niobrara River has been designated as a National Scenic River and as people canoe, kayak, or otherwise float down it, they are rewarded by the sight of hundreds of small waterfalls adding water to the river from the Sandhills just to the south.

Smith Falls, perhaps Nebraska's most recognizable water fall, flows north out of the Sandhills into the Niobrara River.

Smith Falls, perhaps Nebraska’s most recognizable water fall, is a large example of the many waterfalls along streams feeding Sandhills water into the Niobrara River.

Platte

As the Platte River makes its way to the east, water from the Sandhills adds to its flows via many streams and rivers.  That water then joins the Missouri River and makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Trumpeter swan

Trumpeter swans are one of many wildlife species that thrive in Sandhills lakes and wetlands.  The relatively consistent water in those wetlands is a critically important resource for migratory birds as well.

As fresh water continues to become more and more scarce and valuable to the world, pressure will increase to draw water from places of abundance, including the Nebraska Sandhills.  Already, proposals are being bandied about to capture and transport water from the Sandhills to human population centers or to help cover irrigation water shortages in far away places.  The water in the Sandhills already contributes to society by helping to grow forage for one of the most important livestock production regions in the world and supplying water to downstream sources where it is used for irrigation, drinking water, navigation, and recreation.  Also, of course, Sandhills water plays a huge role in supporting migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, along with a vast array of other wildlife species.

Unfortunately, the future of the water resources in the Sandhills will probably rely on whether or not water is viewed primarily as a resource to be mined, transported, stored and put to work.  Here in Nebraska, we are frequently told that water flowing out of our state is “wasted,” and should instead be captured and used for something productive.  A dry river bed is a sign that we’ve used our water efficiently.

There will be important and difficult conversations in the future about what counts as a productive use for water.  Does water have to float a barge, irrigate a crop, or flush a toilet in order to be useful?  Do fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, and aesthetic beauty also factor in?  More importantly, what are the ramifications of removing water from Sandhills land and rivers that people, wildlife, and natural processes already rely on?  It may be that our aspiration to engineer changes to the world exceeds our ability to predict the impacts of those changes.  Let’s hope not.

Wetland

A pool of wasted water stagnates uselessly in a Sandhills wetland…

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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10 Responses to The Value of the Water in the Nebraska Sandhills

  1. Paul says:

    This post immediately reminded me of a passage about water ‘getting advice’ from “Illinois Bus Ride” by Aldo Leopold – worth a quick re-read if you have your copy of “Sketches Here and There” handy! These are often included with the Sand County Almanac.

    The “wasted water” notion flows (or doesn’t flow?) from the strong belief that everything was put here for human use, and if humans are not using it – that is something profoundly wrong.

    Ecological function as a critically important “use” is an ethical consideration that has been slow to catch on and flourish. Thanks for an interesting post Chris!

  2. Stew Magnuson says:

    Good one Chris. This deserves a wider audience. Perhaps a guest column in one of the Nebraska papers. Then again, Maybe we shouldn’t be giving people ideas.

  3. James McGee says:

    Maybe the people who live in the Nebraska Sandhills counties should make an agreement not to export water unless all of the county’s leaders agree. This is what has been done in the Great Lakes region.

  4. Stan Cunningham says:

    Love the sarcasm at the end!

  5. Rex Peterson says:

    Several decades ago, I was at a desert well field where they had a locomotive engine powering a little 4″ pump trying to lift water 1500 ft over 20 miles to a mining town. I am not much worried about upstream users exporting the water. I am worried about them using the water under the sandhills to satisfy downstream obligations or compacts. I am most worried about down gradient places like Hastings, Lincoln or Omaha finding they are short of water and lack the patience to wait for it to flow to them. In the case of Hastings, there is also risk of it being contaminated by the time it gets there.

  6. Bob says:

    So……An ecologist and a commodity broker walk into a bar…. Economics and ecologics cross paths as a conversation ensues. In walks a politician and his wife who happens to be a wildlife photographer. They join the conversation. The evening wears on. Discussions are lubricated by spirited liquor. It is in this vaporous intersection on uninhibited words that a solution could be found.

    The topic of Chris’s post is water. But the post could have been about any natural resource or related ecosystem. In my opinion, to make lasting conservation work, it needs to economically more attractive to those who would benefit from the extraction of the natural resource in question. My opinion is influenced by what I’ve learned about how the American Prairie Reserve (APR) is using their Wild Sky beef company to influence the social acceptance of a more intact ecosystem. If you’re not familiar with APR, I suggest you check ‘em out on the web.

  7. Patrick says:

    As long as there is no long-term, permanent protection of these native landscapes, by which I mean unbroken, native grasslands in this case, ranchers and farmers will never make enough money off these lands to satisfy their consumer desires over the long term…someone in the family or the next buyer will eventually succumb to need/greed and choose exploitation for the fast buck. It is inevitable. Folks might be able to reconstruct the landscape after the damage is done, but that cannot and will not replace what would be lost. The only way I see avoiding the ultimate temptation to exploit these resources is to take them off the table through permanent protection/easements (regardless of who ultimately owns the land…public, private, or ngo entities). The problem we have in Nebraksa is that we are unable to have a frank conversation about this issue because we can’t confront the financial realities of private land ownership and the need for property taxes to fund rural governments. Even if funds are dispersed in lieu of taxes, there is always the interest in making more money from development. I don’t want to see a situation develop where landowners can begin to extort from the public to protect resources that should be held in the publics trust (e.g. Water) because it it legal, but not right to do so. In this case, I could see a need to develop policies of eminent domain that would prevent future development or exploitation by landowners in return for a current fair market value for a permanent easement. I would love to rely on the good will of individual land owners to be conservation minded, but this is unrealistic over the long term. You can see that by what we have already lost. How to solve this problem is next big challenge we must begin to talk about frankly and honestly. My two cents.

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