Municipal Water Leader
Interview

Water Management in Australia and Nebraska

Last December, a group of Nebraskans joined Water Strategies for a tour of Australia that included Australia’s capital, Canberra, as well as the factory of irrigation equipment manufacturer Rubicon and irrigated farmland. In this article, Municipal Water Leader Editor-in- Chief Kris Polly speaks with Nebraska State Senator Bruce Bostelman, Jeremy Gehle of the Nebraska Department of Water Resources (NeDNR), and Bruce Curtis of the Upper Republican Natural Resources District about their experiences of the tour.

Senator Bostelman represents Nebraska’s 23rd district, covering Saunders and Butler Counties and parts of Colfax County. As the lawmaking body for a heavily irrigated agri- cultural state, the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature has long been concerned with developing new and innovative ways to conserve irrigation water. Mr. Gehle is the division head of water administration for the the NeDNR, which prides itself on preserving and conserving Nebraska’s many types of water. The department has many branches that specialize in various types of water management, including groundwater, surface water, and floodplain management. Bruce Curtis is the assistant manager of the Upper Republican Natural Resources District, based in Imperial, Nebraska. The district has long been a leader in groundwater preservation and in the stewardship of natural resources.

Bruce Bostelman, State Senator, Nebraska’s 23rd District

Kris Polly: Senator, please tell us about your impressions of the tour.

Bruce Bostelman: It was an informative and educational tour. This was the first opportunity that I have had to study surface water irrigation in Australia and the challenges that it has faced over the years, as well as its whole system of canals and gates and the computer system that ties it all together. I was very impressed.

Kris Polly: What did you gain from the experience that might be applicable to Nebraska?

Bruce Bostelman: I think that we have to see whether some of the technologies used in Australia could be used in our districts with surface water irrigation. Can we apply those technologies here in Nebraska, and will they achieve the same water savings that are being realized in Australia? I think there is great potential for that.

Kris Polly: Was there anything in particular about the tour that stood out? Were there any surprises?

Bruce Bostelman: The thing that stood out the most was the technology that allowed them to move water efficiently and the computer systems that tied together the whole system. Irrigators can call for water or cancel a call for water on very short notice. That would probably be beneficial here in Nebraska because we have rain events. A person could issue a call for water, and if we had a rain event, they might need to cancel it. Right now, in some areas we have administrators managing these gates. An automated system like the ones we saw would definitely save water and money in a situation like that.

Another interesting thing was how Australia has separated water from land. It will be interesting to see how that system fares over the years. It was a little surprising to me to see how they portion the water out. It is very different from how things are done in Nebraska.

Another difference is that in Nebraska, we do more groundwater irrigation than surface water irrigation—it varies by region—whereas Australia is almost completely dependent on surface water irrigation and runoff. However, the Australian experience with surface water management may be relevant in the western part of Nebraska, especially the Republican River basin, where water flows from one state to another are a big issue.

Kris Polly: What were your thoughts, as a member of the Nebraska State Legislature, about our meetings with representatives of the Australian federal government in Canberra?

Bruce Bostelman: It was great to have an opportunity to talk with them and to hear why they’ve gone in the direction they have. The Millennium Drought was the driving factor for their taking action, and we spoke with the leadership that had made those decisions. We were able to discuss the implementation of their current water system and the separation of water from land and to hear how they feel it’s functioning for them now.

Kris Polly: Overall, what was your impression of the Australians?

Bruce Bostelman: Australians are great, friendly people, lots of fun. I enjoyed the opportunity to meet them, to travel across the country, and to see different farming applications. We saw everything from wheat being combined in the field to citrus and almond fields, grapes, and the whole gamut of corn from the two-leaf stage almost to tasseling, all next to each other in the field. It was interesting to see how their growing seasons and crops are different from ours. The reality was that on the agricultural side, now that they have separated the land from the water, the cost of water and irrigation has gone up. They’ve had to rethink and reshape agriculture. In areas where they were growing rice before, they’ve gone to stone fruits, citrus, almonds, and grapes. They’ve had to change over to high-value crops in order to make irrigated agriculture sustainable. Their soil and climate allowed them to do that. This has had a significant effect on family farms in the regions we toured. In Nebraska, we are not going to be able to grow oranges or almonds, obviously.

Kris Polly: Did you find the tour helpful?

Bruce Bostelman: Yes. Especially in relation to the Republican River basin, we are dealing with water usage and water conservation issues. There is potential for using some of the technology we saw in Australia there. The tour was helpful in understanding that better. You have to look at what has been proven to work, and try to build off that.

Jeremy Gehle, Division Head of Water Administration, Nebraska Department of Natural Resources

Kris Polly: Please tell us about your background and what you do for the state.

Jeremy Gehle: I have a degree in water science from the University of Nebraska. My first job out of school was with the Nebraska Department of Water Resources, which merged with the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission to form the NeDNR a month after I started working there. I have been at the NeDNR nearly 19 years. At the department, I work predominantly with surface water and our water administration systems, which are based on the first in time, first in right prior appropriations system. According to state statute, when there are shortages, we need to make sure the water goes to the person with the most senior water rights. I am also responsible for our streamgauging program and our survey section.

Kris Polly: What were your impressions of Water Strategies’ tour of Australia last December?

Jeremy Gehle: The 16-hour flight was a little long, but everything else was outstanding. It was interesting to talk to the Victoria state government folks and learn how they adapted their water resources policies and laws to reflect the ongoing drought and the water scarcity they face. The tours through the agricultural land and the tour of the Rubicon factory were really enlightening. It was interesting to learn about the technology behind Rubicon’s gates and the infrastructure that makes the water markets and the allocation system they set up in Australia possible. Finishing up in Canberra with the federal government, it was really interesting to learn about how they rolled out their new water reform. It was a fascinating look at how another continent deals with some of the same issues that we’re working through here in Nebraska.

Kris Polly: What was the biggest surprise of everything you saw and learned?

Jeremy Gehle: In terms of the landscape, it was amazing how dry and flat it was. I still think about how the differences between the two climates of southeastern Australia and Nebraska—the timing of precipitation, the availability of groundwater—all those little differences affect the ways that we manage our water here in Nebraska versus how they do in Australia. In terms of water policy, it was most surprising to learn what a huge undertaking it was to roll out Australia’s water marketing policy and program, which took years and required all sorts of research.

Kris Polly: What did you learn over there that you think could be helpful for a situation in Nebraska?

Jeremy Gehle: It seemed like they had really good working relationships between the federal and state governments and the local irrigation districts. It also seemed to me that even the patrons of the districts had a good understanding of all the issues that faced them, and they responded well to the changes in policy, both dealing with how the water was allocated and with reduced water usage. The neat thing with the water markets that they did have in place is that if they didn’t have enough water allocated toraise the crop that they were intending to raise, they could still sell that water and have some income off their land.

Kris Polly: What was the highlight of the tour for you?

Jeremy Gehle: One of my favorite things was meeting with Richard McLoughlin and Adam Sincock of the Australian Government in Canberra. The founders of Rubicon were pretty fascinating, too. They took a business idea and ran with it and turned it into an international company. If you’re any kind of an aspiring entrepreneur, it is really interesting to learn about their story. For me personally, it was neat to see the different landscapes and the flora and fauna of Australia. The thing that I appreciated the most was the opportunity to spend 5 days together with the other professionals in the field from Nebraska and to learn from them. I think that was the most valuable takeaway of being on the trip.

Kris Polly: Did you find the tour helpful?

Jeremy Gehle: I did. It opened my eyes and broadened my horizons to see different ways to address issues. It helped me cast a more inquisitive eye on how water is managed here in Nebraska and the interaction between groundwater and surface water management. One day, there might the potential for expanded applications of water markets here. It was also fascinating to learn about the precision and accuracy with which the Rubicon system can measure and distribute water. Here in Nebraska, pivots and electrical wells can be automated and controlled from a mobile device. The Rubicon system allows for something similar with surface water. That might have some applications across the state as well.

Kris Polly: Would you encourage other folks to go?

Jeremy Gehle: I sure would, particularly if they could go with a group like the one we had. I think folks that are willing to travel the distance are curious about alternative approaches to water management and want to experience new things and learn from the other participants.

Dr. Bruce Curtis, Assistant Manager, Upper Republican Natural Resources District

Kris Polly: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.

Bruce Curtis: I grew up in Illinois and got a bachelor’s in civil engineering with a concentration in water resources from the University of Illinois. I then worked for 6 or 7 years for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. I also got a master of business administration while in Illinois. I then got a master’s degree and a PhD focusing on groundwater from the University of Nebraska– Lincoln. I lived in California for 2 years, working in groundwater, and then I transferred to Denver to work on groundwater and surface water issues. I was in Denver for not quite 25 years, working mainly on surface water, but some groundwater as well. If it is has to do with water, I’ve probably done it at some point in time, whether it is groundwater modeling, surface water modeling, sediment transport, groundwater quality, or water treatment. My wife wanted to move back to Nebraska, and the assistant manager job for the Upper Republican Natural Resources Department looked like a good opportunity. The district was kind enough to offer me the position.

Kris Polly: What were your impressions of what you saw during our December trip to Australia?

Bruce Curtis: The mixture of different things meant the trip was a learning experience with fun mixed in. The zoos, the types of food, and the history were all different from what you get here. It was also interesting to see the federal capital, Canberra, and how it was laid out. We got to visit the Rubicon facility and actually see the equipment being made, not just the gates and the water surface gauges, but also the software. We also got to meet the Australian water users. We met with federal people, state people, an irrigation co-op, and an irrigation district. That gave us a feel for the different types of users, what their challenges are, and how they’re solving the problems.

Kris Polly: What did you see over there that was most applicable to what you do now?

Bruce Curtis: It made me feel optimistic to see how they managed water rights. They scrapped their whole water right system and invented something new. I don’t know if that solution is really applicable here, but it was inspiring to see that, when faced with a problem, the people there got together and solved it. Everyone has different opinions—we see plenty of fighting back and forth over here too—but in a real crisis, everyone pitched in and sacrificed and came up with a plan to solve the problem.

Kris Polly: It is impressive how they faced a tremendous crisis head on and solved it in a way that worked for them.

Bruce Curtis: I think that says something about humanity in general. We’ll fight and bicker about the small things, but when it comes to the big stuff, people pitch in and get it done.

Kris Polly: Was there anything you saw on the tour that you found especially surprising?

Bruce Curtis: I learned that Australia has been growing economically for something like 27 years in a row without a recession. One of the things that really shocked me was the Australians’ great interest in and familiarity with American politics. Whenever we turned on the news, it seemed like the majority of what I was hearing was related to American politics.

When it came to water management, I was impressed by how they had reshaped their water rights system. The districts we saw run their systems very efficiently, thanks to Rubicon’s equipment. Whereas they used to have to put in a demand for water days in advance, their new equipment and software allows them to get water with an hour’s advance notice, which is just incredible to me. It is very efficient and user friendly.

Kris Polly: What is your message for people who might be considering going on a trip like this?

Bruce Curtis: If you have the opportunity, you should go. There is no downside. You get to see a lot of interesting things and you get to see things from other people’s perspectives. You see the challenges they face and their solutions to them. They might not be the exact problems you have at home, but you can take bits and pieces of what you learn and apply them to your particular situation. It is an amazing opportunity.

Bruce Bostelman is the state senator for Nebraska’s 23rd District. He can be reached at bbostelman@leg.ne.gov.

Jeremy Gehle is the division head of water administration for the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. He can be reached at jeremy.gehle@nebraska.gov.

Dr. Bruce Curtis is the assistant manager of the Upper Republican Natural Resources District. He can be reached at bcurtis@urnrd.org.