GOSHEN COUNTY – From small streams in the mountains of northern Colorado, the North Platte River winds its way more than 550 miles, bringing electrical power to communities and vital irrigation water to agriculture producers in Wyoming and Nebraska.
Learning about how that valuable resource is managed on a day-to-day basis brought retired insurance broker Jerry White and his wife, Ann, of Lingle on the two-day, 600-plus mile journey during the 2017 North Platte River Water Tour this week, hosted by the Scottsbluff-Gering (Neb.) Chamber of Commerce.
“We like to do things that are interesting and water is an issue we all need to be aware of,” Mr. White said. “We need it to survive. And this is a nice way to get away and have an opportunity to learn something.”
The water tours started almost 30 years ago, “Just off the seat of our pants, so to speak,” said Robert Busch of Scottsbluff, a retired farmer and member of the chamber Agribusiness Committee. Busch chaired the committee in 1989 when he brought the chairmen of the three major irrigation districts in the area together for a meeting.
“In ’89, we were going into a drought,” Busch said. “It was doing to be a tough water year.”
Busch and the committee wanted to talk about apportionment, how water is divided among the irrigation districts to serve ag producers along the river. What he got, though, was an education on the intricacies of water management along the North Platte.
“I didn’t realize how naïve I was and I’d farmed for 30 years already,” Busch said. “Not knowing exactly how things worked.”
A call the next day to another committee member, then Scottsbluff banker Roger Wilson, who’d also been at the meeting, and the water tour was born.
“I told Roger, ‘I don’t know about you, but I had my eyes open,’” Busch said. “Let’s go and take a look. Lets get a bus, get some people together and let’s go.”
That first tour was put together in about two weeks. It was the start of an annual tradition that educates attendees about management of water, which is directed via the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation area office in Mills.
And now, almost three decades later, Busch said he still learns something new on every trip. And that’s what attracted the White’s on this year’s tour.
“I don’t know much about water, actually,” Jerry White said. “I know there’s been a lot of plans that never materialized.
“But the way these water rights were developed, people way back when had the foresight to figure all this out,” he said. “It’s amazing how they put all the canals in 100 years ago, for example. That was a big undertaking.”
White said he learned recently one of the so-called “man camps,” temporary communities built on the prairie of eastern Wyoming to house the workers building the canals, was on his property near Lingle. He still finds the planning and vision that went into the layout and design of the entire, 550-mile system astounding.
And tour chairman Busch agreed.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was made famous for his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech,” he said. “Well, John C. Fremont was the pioneer that found Fremont Canyon. Then he went back to the president and said, ‘We can harness the river.
“The vision and foresight – you can’t give those people enough credit,” Busch said. “The future thinking they had.”