1890s Drought Kicked Off Irrigation

Shovel irrigation in Scottsbluff County in the 1930’s.

Shovel irrigation in Scottsbluff County in the 1930’s.

Some Native Americans in Nebraska may have diverted streams for irrigation of small plots of corn, beans and squash.

But it was the migration of Euro-Americans onto the drought-prone plains in the 19th century that spawned widespread interest in irrigation. In the 1870s, irrigation was practiced at Fort Sidney, where a ditch from Lodgepole Creek brought water to gardens, lawns and trees.

However, irrigation received scant support in Nebraska until the 1890s, when a drought mobilized public opinion in favor of irrigation. A groundswell of support for irrigation began to sweep the state, which meant diverting surface water.

Conventions took place, and legislation was proposed. The Nebraska State Irrigation Association was founded in 1893 at North Platte. In 1895, the "first-in-time, first-in-right" system of water appropriation was passed, establishing the Board of Irrigation to regulate appropriations.

Private attempts at surface irrigation projects often failed as farmers refused to pay for water and because irrigation farming represented a great deal of work and was poorly understood. It would take the federal government to marshal the funding and cooperation needed to develop large surface-water projects.

The U.S. Reclamation Service was set up in 1902 to fund large dams and irrigation projects in 17 western states, including Nebraska. By 1909 Pathfinder Dam on the North Platte in Wyoming was supplying water to eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. Eight other projects built between the 1940s and 1990s by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation supply surface water to irrigate about half a million acres in Nebraska.

In 1933 the federal administration created the Public Works Administration (PWA). That same year, the state legislature passed the Nebraska Public Power Enabling Act, linking dam-building for irrigation to revenues developed from the sale of public hydropower. The two major irrigation projects in the state funded by the PWA are the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District and part of today's Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD).

After much political conflict, Central received federal approval in 1935. From a 75-mile canal, Central supplies water to about 112,000 acres, mostly in Gosper, Phelps and Kearney counties. The NPPD project was built in conjunction with Central. Both rely on water stored in Lake McConaughy north of Ogallala. As of 1992, NPPD brought water to about 80,000 acres in farmer-owned irrigation districts between Brady and Overton, Nebraska.

Environmental regulations and economic hurdles have curtailed large-scale surface water development since the 1960s. Nebraska filed a lawsuit to stop the Grayrocks Dam on the Laramie River in Wyoming, alleging that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The 1978 settlement resulting from the suit required that project sponsors establish a $7.5 million trust fund for the maintenance of whooping crane habitat in the Central Platte region.

By 1970, about 1 million acres in Nebraska were surface water-irrigated, compared with about 3 million irrigated with groundwater. By 1990, the number of acres irrigated with surface water had not changed substantially, but the number of acres under pump irrigation had risen to about 7 million.

Did You Know?

In 1933 the federal administration created the Public Works Administration (PWA). That same year, the state legislature passed the Nebraska Public Power Enabling Act, linking dam-building for irrigation to revenues developed from the sale of public hydropower. The two major irrigation projects in the state funded by the PWA are the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District and part of today's Nebraska Public Power District.

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