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Surface Water in Custer County, Nebraska

As told by Mike Kozeal, Damion Hill, Gaby Martinez, Shaylee Oxford, Emma Hart
Custer County, Nebraska

Story Narrative:

A young boy holds a wooden pipe near a wetlands area in Nebraska.

Surface water is a crucial resource for irrigation in Custer County, Nebraska, where agriculture is a significant part of life. Students in the Sargent Natural Resources Class demonstrate many technological advancements to help irrigate crops using water from the Middle Loup River and also provide a tour of the Sargent area's dams and water resources. This project was created through a County wide partnership with Custer County Historical Society.

Speaker 1 (00:00): Flowing out of the Sandhills of Nebraska, the Middle Loup River has been an important part of the development and history of Northern Custer County. The waterway has provided habitat for wildlife. A site for a variety of recreational activities, such as hunting, fishing, swimming, and even boating at Doris Lake. But in the last seven years its greatest gift to the Middle Loup Valley has been surface water for irrigation. In our presentation we will talk about the three diversion dams on the Middle Loup River near Milburn, Sargent and Comstock. When each was built, and how many acres they irrigate. We will describe and demonstrate past and present methods used to distribute the valuable resource to the crops of the Middle Loup Valley. Methods to be covered include irrigating with lath or pillboxes, siphon tubes, gated pipe, and finally center pivot irrigation.

Speaker 2 (00:50): This is where it all starts.

Speaker 3 (00:53): The Milburn Diversion Dam constructed and completed in 1959 is located near Milburn 27 miles from Sargent.

Speaker 1 (01:00): It consists of earth dykes, a concrete spillway, and slews way that works with the Sargent Canal, which extends South easterly for 39.6 miles to western edge of [inaudible 00:01:09] County. The dam serves as a dual purpose of diverting water and controlling sediment. Serves water to over 13,000 acres of land. The Lillian Canal was supposed to begin at the South side of the Milburn Dam and extend South Easterly for 15 and a half miles, but it was never completed.

Speaker 3 (01:23): The Milburn Dam is a great place for families to picnic and fish for the day.

Speaker 3 (01:45): (Sound of water)

Speaker 4 (01:45): Sargent Diversion Dam irrigates about 25,000 acres of land that goes from Sargent to approximately Comstock. Plans for the dam first began in 1933, but after several unsuccessful tries and non-interest work began on the 39.6 miles now in January 1955.

Speaker 5 (02:06): Shortly after on January 25th of 1955, excavation of the dam begin. It cost $414,711. This dam was later destroyed by a flood in 2010. The cost to build the new one was $2.15 million. The new one was completed in the summer of 2011.

Speaker 1 (02:32): Arcadia Diversion Dam, located three and a half miles south of Comstock, was completed on November 6th 1962. It sits on 777 acres of land and 109 acres of water. The dam serves some farmers, and ranchers, and Custer County, but it's primarily used in Sherman and Howard counties. Water is carried 20 miles from the Arcadia Diversion Dam to the Sherman Reservoir through the Sherman Feeder Canal. A system of canals, pumping plants, laterals, and drains provide irrigation of 53,414 acres of high yielding land.

Speaker 6 (03:07): This is a pill box. It has made of four lapped boards nailed together with finished nails. It's about a three foot long rectangular tube that goes through the wall of your lateral ditch and it's buried in there. And then it just flows water clear out to the row. And water goes through the center of it. And that's how a pill box works.

Speaker 1 (03:50): The siphon tube was a great advancement from the pill box. Siphon tubes are much more efficient than previous irrigation methods. A ditch full of water, about three feet wide and two and a half to three feet deep, is made at the high end of the field. Siphon tubes run on suction and are usually made of plastic or aluminum.

Speaker 7 (04:09): Gated pipe was first introduced in the 1940s. It became popular in Custard County in the 1960s through the 1980s, and is still used today. The inventor of gated pipe was Paul Hohnstein. He discovered that a new metal called aluminum made pipe easier lighter and easier to move. Pipe is more efficient than open laterals and siphoned tubes because it allows less water to evaporate and more to percolate into the soil. It also saves water and time and cuts down on manual labor.

Speaker 1 (04:47): Center pivot made its way to the Middle Loup Valley in the 1970s. Initially it was used to distribute groundwater. Around 2000 farmers started to use surface water from the Middle Loup River. The problem with using surface water was filtering out plant and aquatic material from the canal. Today, screen and filters allow farmers to use surface water through their center pivot. The center pivot use much less water than flood irrigation, but it still takes about 800 gallons per minute or two acre feet to operate the system.

Speaker 8 (05:21): This is a system that takes water from the Middle Loup River or Middle Loup Watershed and distributes it to crops through a center pivot system. We get the water from the river at the Milburn Dam. It goes through the canal system it's underground pipe buried to this system. It's metered and they can control how much comes down there. All I have to do is open up the valve. With the valves opened up it goes through this system right here. This is a filter that screens out moss and aquatic life, so it does plug up my sprinkler.

Speaker 8 (06:00): Great, I open up my valve. This valve goes to my pivot point and my [inaudible 00:06:06] I get that all open. I just come over to the control box, turn on my power, and all I got to do is push a button. Pumps turn on. I can control how much water that I am distributing. Right now I'm putting out 1600 per acre. I can go up, there's a little over an inch right now. So real efficient, real quick, real easy way to irrigate crops in central Nebraska usually surface water from the Middle Loup River.

Speaker 1 (06:56): The Middle Loup Watershed has served Northern Custer County well. With its beauty, habitat for wildlife, and as a hub for recreational activities, but its greatest gift is the water itself. The river has let us borrow countless of gallons of water to irrigate our crops, which add life and value to the Middle Loup Valley.

Asset ID: 8621
Themes: Water, waterways, agriculture, farming, engineering
Date recorded: 2018
Length of recording: 7:17 m
Related traveling exhibition: Water/Ways
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Custer County Historical Society, Nebraska
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