As early as 1913, a group of community leaders in south central Nebraska came together and agreed that to make their area prosper they needed to bring water from the Platte River to their farms. The only problem was that the water was at least 25 miles away and downhill. To move water to south central Nebraska farms would take miles of canals and lots of dollars.
It was not until the drought of the 1930s that all the elements of the pioneering project came together.
Actually, irrigation from surface water sources in Nebraska goes back to at least 1870. In that year, a group from North Platte formed an irrigation company and diverted water from the river to a few fields. Several wet years followed, and the canal was abandoned. By 1889, the Nebraska legislature enacted the first water laws. Under the new law, people could take water from streams by simply posting notice at the point they wanted to build a ditch and begin digging within 60 days.
The Central Nebraska project was a lot more complicated, in part because by then the only entity with enough money to build the project was the federal government.
This project became financially possible when five factors came together:
- First, the drought re-emphasized the need for irrigation, especially in the semi-arid plains.
- Second, floods in 1927 spurred interest in the ability of proposed project’s dams to control floods.
- Third, the planners added hydroelectric power generators to the project to supply electricity to new urban and rural power companies.
- Fourth, the recreation potential of the new lakes became a positive factor.
- And finally, the Great Depression meant that this project would provide jobs.
After years of applying to the federal government, in 1935 the Public Works Administration approved the project.
The addition of the hydro-electrical power generators was critical. Some of the funding for the project was an outright grant. But the majority of the funding was a loan. Crops alone – even more abundant crops – could not pay back the loans. But as more and more cities strung electrical lines and as REA became a reality, generating electricity at the dams was good way for the “Irrigation” district to make money. So power became a partner with irrigation.
In 1938, after a series of legal challenges, construction began on the Kingsley Dam near Ogallala, Nebraska.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.