A Overview of Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Activities

Two Nebraska entities have received a combined $2 million over the last five years to help producers restore playa wetland and grassland habitat and to address water quality and quantity issues that affect the recharge of the Ogallala Aquifer.

Through the program, producers were able to remove sedimentation from the playas and restore them so they could perform their natural function of filtering pollutants out of water and into the aquifer. Incentives also helped producers install variable-rate irrigation systems to save water and money.Playas are shallow depressions in the countryside. They provide habitat for migrating waterfowl and are recharge points for the Ogallala aquifer. Many of the playas have been altered due to farming, said Eric Zach, agriculture program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.“Divots in the Pivots” is the name of the conservation project that restores habitat in Nebraska’s rainwater basin and continues economic sustainability to agriculture. One area that was restored in the Divots project belonged to Gayle Marsh. He farms west of Giltner, Nebraska, in Hamilton County.

“They hooked up the VRI to a well on a hilltop that we weren’t using,” Marsh said, referring to variable rate irrigation. “It can produce 850 gallons per minute and still save electricity.”

About 54 acres of Marsh’s property is a playa. He can grow a crop on it about once every three to five years, he said. But, he can rent it out for grazing the other years. This is helpful to the migrating birds as well.

Marsh was active in wetlands conservation years before getting involved with the divots program. But, when he was approached by representatives of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) with a wetlands easement initiative, he went all-in on the idea.

The NRCS showed ways to improve the wetlands with new grass planted and offered grant incentives to offset any financial burden.

“It was a beautiful situation,” he said. “It was a real easy task.”

The funds came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission received $1.2 million through the program since 2015, made available to producers in 15 counties.

“We have just successfully completed programs aimed at replenishing habitat for grassland birds such as pheasants, bobwhite quail and the greater prairie-chicken,” Zach said.

The project was a partnership with groups including Pheasants Forever, which came up with habitat areas and recruited several private land owners to get the project started, said Kelsi Wehrman, state coordinator for Pheasants Forever. The organization worked with landowners in tree removal, deferred grazing and planting of thickets.

Eastern red cedar management was the primary focus of the tree removal. It is an invasive species that reduces grazing profitability by as much as 75% and provides predator roosts for animals that target grassland birds.

Another tactic in restoring grassland habitat was to persuade producers to commit to grazing later in the season.

“They rest their pasture for a specific time period,” Wehrman said. “This allows the field to recharge and also permits wildlife to use it undisturbed.”

Planting thickets of American plum shrubbery — important wildlife cover and food — was another vital part of the effort.

“The thorny shrub forms a thicket for nesting,” Wehrman said. “The twigs and foliage provide a haven for quail and pheasant from predators like the raccoon.”

Also receiving funds under the Agriculture Regional Conservation Partnership Program umbrella is the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, a public-private partnership of the Nebraska Community Foundation. The group has received more than $700,000 through grants from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

The rainwater basin wetland complex stretches from Seward County in the east to Gosper County in the west. The north boundary is the Platte River and the south is the Republican River.”

The group encompassing 21 counties was created in 1992 to protect waterfowl habitat. The venture concentrates on the 150-mile-wide area of playa wetlands in the rainwater basin of southcentral Nebraska.

Part of the program’s goal is to restore and enhance 400 acres of playa wetlands. When flooded, these wetlands will provide foraging habitat sufficient to support 342,465 ducks for a day during spring migration or roughly 4% of the migrating waterfowl that rely on the rainwater basin during spring migration, Bishop said.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program has funding available for producers who wish to contribute to the preservation of the state’s 11,000 historic wetland footprints; 72% of which are intersected by pivot irrigation systems. These footprints cover 211,000 acres, Bishop said.

These wetlands include eight distinct geographies which provide habitat for 1.7 million shorebirds, 90% of the mid-continent population of Sandhill cranes, 8.6 million waterfowl and 15.4 million grassland nesting birds, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

There’s help for producers implementing habitat enhancements on cropland such as buffer strips. Pheasants Forever is drafting a new proposal for funding to plant grasses and wildflowers around well-heads and as buffer strips between crop areas and streams.

“We want to do more for cropland areas,” Wehrman said. “A larger effort also needs to be made in degraded water quality areas.”

Jon Burleson can be reached at jon.burleson@lee.net.

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